Judge warns V.I. about late payments to prison monitor


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ST. CROIX - A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the territory to keep current with paying the bills for the independent monitor hired to assess conditions at Golden Grove prison - and warned of possible contempt sanctions if the territory allows the account to go into arrears again.

District Court Judge Wilma Lewis noted during a status conference on Tuesday that the territory has failed to pay monitor Kenneth Ray in a timely manner twice in less than three months, prompting Ray to suspend services each time.

The territory has now paid up and the services have resumed.

However, Lewis said she remains concerned because when the account fell past due in February, she called a hearing and was told by lawyers that the territory would keep up its end of the bargain and pay Ray's invoices in a timely manner.

With the monitor not getting paid and suspending services again within three months, Lewis said she still has concerns.

"I am concerned because I sat here a few months ago and I was assured that this problem would never happen again," Lewis said, noting that Ray's services are "essential" to implementing court-ordered reform at the prison.

The U.S. Justice Department brought the civil lawsuit more than 27 years ago in an effort to force the territory into fixing conditions at the prison, which violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Since then, the territory has been under various sets of court orders designed to force change at Golden Grove, but has repeatedly failed to follow the orders and has so far failed to bring the prison up to constitutional standards.

The latest set of court orders, approved a year ago, requires the services of an independent monitor to assess conditions at the prison and report to the court and the public on the Correction Bureau's progress in implementing the orders. The monitor can also provide technical assistance to the V.I. Corrections Bureau.

"The monitor is integral and essential to the implementation of this agreement," Lewis said Tuesday.

The U.S. Justice Department filed an emergency motion on Ray's behalf May 8, seeking payment that was past-due and requesting that the court order an escrow account to be set up to ensure timely payments from the territory in the future.

The territory's lawyers said during the status conference Tuesday that the issue of the territory failing to pay Ray in a timely manner in February and the issue of the territory failing to pay Ray in a timely manner in May were two separate issues, the first one occurring because the contract for Ray's services had not been fully executed and the problem earlier this month because of an "oversight."

Ray, who joined Tuesday's conference by telephone, said he felt that setting up an escrow account would be the "most reliable, most predictable method to resolve this issue permanently."

He told the judge that when he does not get paid on time, it not only creates problems for him, but also creates problems for the two other experts on the monitoring team.

"I don't want to run the chance of losing them because they're very difficult to recruit," he said.

Corrections Director Julius Wilson, who also called in, said that the V.I. Corrections Bureau has the money to pay the monitor budgeted.

Officials said the problem with paying the bill occurred because the Corrections Bureau's attorney, Kenrick Robertson, was out with a family emergency during April and Wilson, who also received a copy of Ray's invoice, assumed he was just getting a courtesy copy. Wilson said he was accustomed to approving the payment for the monitor on a different government form.

Robertson took responsibility for the "oversight" that led to Ray not getting paid and Wilson said he would make sure the payments to Ray are made in a timely fashion going forward.

Officials noted that the bureau gets its allotment from the Central Government on a monthly basis, so an escrow account requiring the deposit of a larger sum all at once could prove problematic.

Lewis ultimately wound up issuing the order requiring the territory to pay Ray on a timely basis - within 30 days of him providing an invoice - and warning of possible contempt of court sanctions if it fails to pay up promptly again.

"It is my hope that we will never have to get to sanctions," she said.

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