V.I. wins fight to keep report on 'urgent' conditions at Golden Grove from public

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ST. CROIX - The territory has successfully blocked the public from seeing an expert's report on "urgent" conditions at Golden Grove prison, the same week a stabbing and at least one other reported assault occurred inside the facility.

A federal court has found that the conditions inside Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility violate the protection against cruel and unusual punishment afforded to U.S. citizens in the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. Those findings are part of an ongoing case that has been litigated by federal civil rights lawyers for more than 27 years in an attempt to get the territory to treat its prisoners humanely.

Court documents that the public can see suggest that the conditions at the prison that the expert was warning of were serious.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division filed a notice with the court that said it was attaching correspondence and a report on "Urgent Conditions of Confinement Concerns at GGACF." GGACF is Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility. The report, according to the notice, was filed on behalf of the independent monitor, Kenneth Ray.

Ray's job includes monitoring conditions inside the prison, as well as the V.I. Corrections Bureau's implementation of the provisions of a settlement agreement aimed at bringing conditions at Golden Grove up to constitutional standards.

His job also requires him to report the information he gathers and his observations to the court on a quarterly basis under a certain procedure that gives the parties a two-week review period and an opportunity for input before a report is made public.

On Wednesday, the territory filed an emergency motion asking the court to withdraw the correspondence and report from the record, contending that it comprised "an unauthorized public statement" by the monitor that is prohibited by the settlement agreement.

Later on Wednesday, the U.S. Justice Department opposed that motion, arguing that the monitor must be able to alert the court to "emergency conditions in Golden Grove that are placing prisoners' lives in danger."

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Wilma Lewis agreed with the territory and ordered that the notice to the court and the attached correspondence and report be stricken from the record.

The report and correspondence were not accessible to the public at the point when a Daily News reporter saw the court file. The notice to the court from federal civil rights lawyers was still visible, although that too has now been stricken from the record.

In its motion, the territory notes that the settlement agreement strictly limits public statements by the monitor.

"To prevent imprudent disclosures of non-public information, the settlement agreement limits the monitor's public statements and provides the defendants an opportunity to review and comment on the monitor's draft reports," Nathan Oswald, the stateside lawyer who represents the territory in the case, wrote.

Oswald notes that the required two-week review period gives the territory an opportunity to review and comment on the reports and make suggestions if an inaccuracy is perceived. The territory did not have an opportunity to comment on the report that the U.S. Justice Department filed with the court, nor did the territory agree to its filing, according to Oswald.

"Plaintiff cannot circumvent the protections that the defendants require and bargained for by creatively filing the monitor's papers in the public record at times other than when the settlement agreement contemplated," he wrote.

The U.S. Justice Department contended that the monitor must be able to alert the court to dangerous conditions in the prison.

"It would be irresponsible of him, and indeed a dereliction of his duties, to await the filing of his next quarterly report to make the court aware of urgent conditions that could continue to result in serious harm to prisoners," the U.S. Justice Department wrote in its opposition. "The settlement agreement anticipates that the monitor will report to the court in the manner to which defendants object. Thus, defendants' motion is neither supported by the text of the settlement agreement nor by sound policy."

The U.S. Justice Department goes on to note that the role of the monitor is to be the court's eyes and ears in the facility:

"If, as the monitor found here, emergency conditions warrant immediate action, he has not only the right, but also the responsibility, to make the parties and the court aware," the U.S. Justice Department wrote.

Court documents indicate the correspondence was from Ray to Corrections Director Julius Wilson.

In her order, Lewis wrote that it was apparent to her "that there was no 'anticipation' in the settlement agreement that the monitor's reports could be filed unilaterally by one party without any process whatsoever, or without an order of the court."

She agreed, however, that the parties "must be able to alert the court to emergency conditions at Golden Grove."

The judge wrote that the parties "are free to bring such matters to the court's attention - including through the use of reports and testimony by the monitor," and to ask for whatever relief they think is appropriate.

"However, they are not free to do so by either circumventing provisions of the settlement agreement or creating provisions in the agreement that do not exist," Lewis wrote.

Last week, at least two prisoner assaults were reported in Golden Grove.

On Tuesday, Shadrach Petersen appeared well while he was in Magistrate Court to be advised of his rights on assault charges, but on Wednesday, when Petersen returned to court, his face was swollen and barely recognizable and he had difficulty walking. He told the court he had been assaulted at the facility, but he had not been taken for medical attention.

On Friday afternoon, a fight between two prisoners led to a stabbing that left one prisoner wounded and the other on full lockdown. The prison itself was on modified lockdown Friday night.

Corrections Director Julius Wilson on Sunday night declined to comment on the case or the judge's decision. He said officials anticipate lifting the modified lockdown at the prison today.

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

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