Police Report Progress on Consent Decree; Corrections Still Faces Challenges

The Ron deLLugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)
The Ron deLLugo Federal Courthouse. (File photo)

Two USVI law enforcement agencies working to make reforms spelled out in federal consent decrees presented varying levels of compliance at hearings in District Court.

Officials from the V.I Police Department Police logged gains on finalizing a use-of-force policy Monday, and on Wednesday Department of Corrections officials reported on efforts to confronted the challenges of handling mentally ill inmates at the St. Thomas jail.

Both the Virgin Islands Police Department and the Bureau of Corrections have been working out dozens of reforms contained in their respective decrees; one mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the other by the American Civil Liberties Union, National Prison Project.

This week, as quarterly compliance hearings appeared in District Court on St. Thomas, there was feedback on their recent efforts.

VIPD had some of the more favorable results. Attorney Terri Griffiths told District Court Judge Curtis Gomez that significant progress had been achieved over the past two years, with the creation of a task force to direct completion of compliance steps.

The judge, in turn, asked VIPD officials to provide dates by which they expect to complete mandated reforms.

“Over the last two years, VIPD has closed hundreds of cases and closed backlogs of cases. As long as VIPD continues to strengthen its partnership with external agencies that provide expertise, VIPD should be able to go into the new year with substantial compliance,” Griffith said Monday.

“I am certainly heartened by where we are,” Judge Gomez said.

Wednesday, at the BOC compliance hearing, director Rick Mullgrave had similar comments about the need for outside help. But there still appeared to be a long way to go before BOC could reach substantial compliance at the St. Thomas Criminal Justice Complex.

The hearing heard complaints about delays on an agreement to move the mentally ill into suitable facilities. ACLU Attorney Eric Baliban played a video from jail surveillance showing a prison guard putting an inmate into a choke hold. And Mullgrave laid out plans to set up a capital improvements line item in the BOC budget for hurricane mitigation after last year’s storms.

At the same time, Mulgrave told the court he could use twice as many personnel and the challenge of dealing with the mentally ill couldn’t improve using available resources. The BOC director said his administration came to the conclusion that they could not achieve their goals alone, so they are now reaching out to outside entities to get help.

Gomez said it was time the different government agencies involved in the CJC case to work together to finalize a contract between BOC and the Department of Health.

According to Assistant Health Commissioner Nicole Craigwell-Syms, the deal would provide services for about 13 CJC inmates considered mentally ill. Services provided under the contract include mental health evaluations and relocation to a secured facility where they can receive treatment.

But the last time the contract was submitted for approval by Property and Procurement it was sent back, Syms said. DOH officials were told to correct and resubmit for approval. Gomez said he found it hard to believe no agreement could be reached after a year of effort on Syms part.

The mentally ill at CJC needed to be transferred to a facility where they can receive proper treatment, the judge said. Past practice by BOC involved releasing patients from the jail, although they knew in some cases they posed a danger to themselves, to others or to the community.

BOC had already been found in contempt of court for using discharges to avoid compliance.

“There are some mentally ill patients who pose a threat to themselves, to others and to other members of the community, yet I hear from the commissioner of Health that they are having problems getting a contract finalized, to deal with the severely mentally ill,” Gomez said. “What levels of urgency does the Virgin Islands government attach to completing the task?”