Report: Golden Grove still 'dangerous, violent place'

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ST. CROIX - A newly released report on conditions at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility in December, as observed by an independent monitor, says the prison remains a "dangerous and violent" place and that very little had improved since the monitor's first visit in September.

The report by independent monitor Kenneth Ray and two other experts hired to assess the territory's implementation of court orders aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards was filed with the court on Monday, more than three months after the December visit occurred.

It was not clear how conditions at Golden Grove may have changed since then, although the V.I. Corrections Bureau contends that progress has been made.

Emergency issues

The state of things at the prison in December prompted Ray to write a letter in January about urgent conditions to Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson.

That letter outlines 35 serious, "urgent" and potentially life-threatening issues that the monitoring team discovered on the visit, along with actions Ray recommended the territory take immediately to address the problems.

Conditions at the prison in December and a move by federal civil rights lawyers to alert the federal judge overseeing the case to the urgent issues prompted a legal skirmish in January between the territory and the U.S. Department of Justice. Court proceedings ultimately led to Ray's letter about the urgent conditions being stricken from the court record for a time, although it is now part of the record after going through a process outlined in court orders.

It was filed on Monday along with the monitor's December report.

The conditions at Golden Grove in December also precipitated a move by the U.S. Justice Department earlier this month to ask the court to enforce its orders and to add a few aimed at forcing corrective action from the territory to address the urgent issues the monitor observed and noted in his letter.

Different perspectives

The independent monitoring team visited the prison for several days in December.

The same day that the December visit ended, on Dec. 12, Government House issued a statement saying that Gov. John deJongh Jr. had met earlier in the week with Wilson "to discuss achievements and ongoing challenges" in the territory's prison system.

That statement highlights the different perspectives of territory officials and the independent monitoring team on the situation.

The report from the monitor's December visit notes, for instance, that Ray found no need to write a new executive summary and instead quotes from the executive summary from his September visit because there had been so little change.

The summary from September, likewise, notes the lack of improvement at Golden Grove since the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in February 2013 filed with the court its uncontested findings on inhumane conditions at the prison. A judge has found that conditions at the prison violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment contained in the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

However, the Government House statement in December quoted the governor saying that progress was being made in addressing the most critical issues at the prison.

"Conditions are not perfect, and they are not where we would like them to be, but we are moving in the right direction," deJongh said of the situation in December.

'Emergency' conditions

In a brief report accompanying the letter to Wilson, Ray outlines findings by the monitoring team "that necessitate emergency action" to eliminate or reduce the risks to inmates and staff.

The urgent conditions Ray noted in December included 19 safety and security risks related to inadequate staffing and staff supervision. Some of the issues under that heading include chronic staffing shortages resulting in housing units operating with one or no officers; officers not showing up for work when scheduled or refusing to work assigned areas; officers refusing to work certain housing areas because they fear inmates and unsafe conditions; housing unit sally port entrance doors, internal security gates and control room doors remaining unlocked; and security gates left unlocked or standing open.

Ray does note that local officials mentioned hiring new Corrections officers, and other court documents indicate that 14 new officers may have started training in January.

Inadequate medical staffing

Ray's report also notes nine urgent problems the monitoring team outlined related to inadequate medical and mental health staffing.

Those issues included logbooks "replete with examples of medical and mental health care issues being flagged by security staff, along with a note that 'no doctor is available' or 'no one present in medical'; lack of coordination between security staff in intake and medical staff, leading to a 'high risk of harm to prisoners,'" and other issues.

The urgent issues also included three related to inadequate safety equipment and inadequate training on safety equipment.

The letter noted that "equipment lists on different units often noted that the unit was without a working radio, empty first aid boxes, and/or no suicide cut-down tools."

It goes on to say that in some instances, units went without working radios or phones for weeks at a time, presenting an "extreme risk to staff and inmate safety, especially if there is only one officer assigned to each housing unit."

The four urgent issues noted under the heading of physical plant issues included flooding and standing water during heavy rains, including in areas with exposed electrical cords; prolific mold throughout the housing units; a filthy kitchen; and the lack of a working fire-safety system.

Ray described the list as a "non-exclusive list of specific serious issues found during the second monitoring site visit that beg for urgent attention and resolution," and encouraged territory officials to immediately take 10 actions, which included stopping the practice of leaving housing units unstaffed, expediting hiring and stopping the practice of leaving doors unlocked.

Current conditions

Earlier this month, Ray and the independent monitoring team visited the prison again to assess the status of implementing the court orders. They visit the prison quarterly.

The Corrections Bureau put out a press release last weekend through Government House giving Wilson's impression of the visit.

According to that release, the monitors:

- "Asserted that they were pleasantly pleased with many of the improvements seen."

- Reported to prison officials that they saw improvements in sanitation, after the facility underwent what the press release described as "a thorough cleaning, scrubbing, power washing and painting."

- Saw improvements in safety and security with additional perimeter lighting, appropriate securing of doors, and distribution of safety equipment, including radios and stab vests, to staff.

Other improvements Corrections contends have occurred include updated maintenance plans and logbook information that is more relative and detailed.

Ray is not allowed to comment publicly about conditions at the prison, and all parties in the case have a chance to see his written report and comment on it before the report is finalized.

His report from the visit early this month is due to the court in late April and in time for a hearing on the U.S. Justice Department's motion asking the judge to enforce the orders.

The territory has not yet responded to that motion.

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