V.I. pushes back against feds urging quicker progress at Golden Grove


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ST. CROIX - The territory has fired back at the U.S. Justice Department's contention that the V.I. Corrections Bureau is moving too slowly to fix crisis conditions at Golden Grove prison, arguing that the federal government is getting exactly what it bargained for and just has "settler's remorse."

"If anything is obvious about the parties' settlement agreement, it is that the agreement lacks specific remedial measures to be accomplished by specific deadlines," Nathan Oswald, the lawyer representing the territory in the 27-year-old case, wrote in an opposition to a Justice Department motion for the judge to enforce court orders and impose a few new ones. "Instead, the parties established a flexible process for achieving agreed-upon objectives."

The territory also contends in its response to the motion that it has taken steps to improve conditions since a December visit by the independent monitor evaluating the territory's implementation of the agreement prompted a letter outlining 35 serious, "urgent" and potentially life-threatening issues that needed attention.

At stake, according to federal civil rights lawyers, is the safety of inmates and staff and the security of Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility.

Conditions at the prison violate the protection against cruel and unusual punishment contained in the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a situation the territory has failed to rectify during the years that the case has been litigated.

The territory and the U.S. Justice Department reached agreement last year on the most recent set of court orders aimed at bringing conditions at the prison up to constitutional standards. A federal judge OK'd the agreement in May.

Motion

On March 3, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion in the case asking the court to enforce the orders and to implement a few new ones aimed at forcing the territory to address certain emergent conditions, including staffing, security, fire and life safety, environmental, and medical and mental health care issues.

The motion is based on conditions that the independent monitoring team observed at the prison during its quarterly visit in December.

Independent monitor Kenneth Ray and two other experts that comprise the team have since made another site visit to the prison in early March. The territory contends that conditions at the prison have improved since December, although the report from the March visit has not yet been released to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department contended in its motion that Golden Grove does not have enough staff to keep prisoners reasonably safe, that the Corrections Bureau engages in unsafe security practices that put staff and prisoners at increased risk of harm, that the territory does not provide constitutionally adequate mental or medical health care, that the territory does not provide adequate fire and life safety systems, and that prisoners live in hazardous and unsanitary conditions.

The Justice Department is asking for eight specific orders from the court to address what it sees as the most critical issues at Golden Grove, according to the motion. Those orders are for immediate actions, and include orders to do things like immediately repairing the broken locks on cell doors and facility gates and discontinue the practice of leaving facility and housing unit gates unlocked.

In addition, the motion asks the court to order the territory to comply with any other terms that the court deems necessary to ensure immediate and significant compliance with the agreement and also requests monthly telephone status conferences.

Opposition

The territory contends in its opposition to the motion, which was filed last week, that what the Justice Department is asking for would require the judge to change the settlement agreement "by adding terms that the parties did not include and to ignore terms that the parties negotiated and settled on."

The territory argues that the Justice Department motion is a "fundamental attack" on the agreement and represents "settler's remorse."

"It seeks to undermine the role of the Monitor to assess and pass on the schedule for remedial efforts as well as the procedures laid out in the settlement agreement for dispute resolution," Oswald writes in the opposition. "It also undermines the right of the defendants to fashion, in the first instance, the form, timing, and order of remedial measures in light of the complicated issues facing Golden Grove."

The defendants include the territory and the Bureau of Corrections.

In its opposition, the territory requests that the judge "preserve the bargain the parties struck in the settlement agreement and deny the motion."

Oswald argues that the Corrections Bureau has developed a work plan and submitted it by a date which the U.S. Justice Department agreed on.

That plan, according to Oswald, sets out the steps the territory plans to take "by specific or calculable deadlines to achieve full compliance with the settlement agreement."

He argues that if the U.S. Justice Department had issues with the way things were going with the implementation of the agreement, the agreement itself provides the steps the Justice Department should have taken before filing a motion with the court.

He also notes that although the case is old, the current set of court orders is not quite a year old. He contends that the U.S. Justice Department motion simply reflects its dissatisfaction with the agreement.

The territory also argues that the orders the U.S. Justice Department requested fail to satisfy the prerequisites of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which require that any relief granted is necessary to correct the violation of a federal right, narrowly drawn, and minimally intrusive.

Oswald then goes through each order the U.S. Justice Department requested, provides an update of where the territory is in dealing with the issue, and argues against the Justice Department's request.

For instance, according to Oswald, all officers at the prison now have working radios or other reliable means of communicating besides cell phones, and the Bureau has been "responding rapidly" to fix broken locks.

U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis has set a hearing on the motion, as well as a status conference to discuss where the territory is at in implementing the agreement, for April 28.

- Contact reporter Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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