Judge Finds Poor Conditions at Virgin Islands Jail Violate Court Orders

May 29, 2003 12:00 am

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ST. THOMAS, VI — Citing the defendants’ willful failure to comply with court orders and provisions of a 1994 settlement agreement to eliminate unconstitutional jail conditions, a federal judge yesterday held territory and corrections officials in St. Thomas in civil contempt for the third time in six years, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“Even after defendants agreed almost 10-years ago to improve medical and mental health care and end fire code violations, dangerous conditions within St. Thomas’s Criminal Justice Complex continue to jeopardize the health and safety of the men and women housed there,” said Eric Balaban, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who is representing the prisoners in this case.

The order, issued by U.S. District Judge Stanley Brotman, follows a November 2002 evidentiary hearing where medical and corrections experts cited numerous problems plaguing the St. Thomas facility. Dr. Charles Braslow testified that after touring the facility in September 2002 he found lapses in the treatment of prisoners with chronic illnesses. Despite a 2001 court order, prisoners were still not receiving care consistent with community standards.

Yesterday’s ruling criticized St. Thomas officials for inadequacies in the jail’s mental health care system as well. Judge Brotman found that prisoners who exhibit signs of mental illness were not appropriately referred to a psychiatrist for treatment.

Most striking is officials’ continued failure to remedy problems with the complex’s fire safety system despite repeated warnings, Balaban noted.

In his order, Judge Brotman wrote, “the incomplete fire detection and suppression systems; the absence of fire safety training; inadequate numbers of correctional staff; inadequate fire drills; lack of fire system replacement parts and supplies; absence of a preventative maintenance contract for the fire detection, suppression, and alarm systems; and the lack of written policies and procedures of which all staff are knowledgeable, results in these facilities remaining a serious and imminent threat to the lives, safety, and health of the prisoners and staff.”

Officials in the Virgin Islands — which is a U.S. territory consisting of three islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — will have 45-days to submit a comprehensive progress report to prove claims that conditions at the jail complex have improved since last fall’s facility tour. In addition, medical and correctional experts will again tour the jail within 30-days and issue new reports outlining their own findings.

“Today’s contempt order against territory officials sends an important message that a laisez faire approach to maintaining constitutional conditions of confinement will not be tolerated,” Balaban said.

Prisoners in the lawsuit, Lawrence Carty, et al. v. Charles W. Turnbull, et al. in the District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John are represented by Balaban and local attorney Benjamin A. Currence.

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