June 3, 2009 — There's a difference between living in a prison and visiting one, and those differences were apparent Wednesday on a planned media tour of the Criminal Justice Complex (CJC) and Alva Swan Annex on St. Thomas.
Living in the complex, according to two experts hired by the American Civil Liberties Union, means dealing with issues of overcrowding, a lack of medicine and proper treatment (particularly for the mentally ill), faulty security mechanisms (such as locks on the prison cells) and a staffing shortage that gives inmates a chance to break out, or unsupervised access to critical parts of the facility.
Brought in last November to do what he called a "cursory" inspection of the two St. Thomas facilities, prisons security expert Steve Martin testified in a court hearing Tuesday that he found violations in as much as 11 basic areas he said are essential for the safety and security of any prison. Living in the prison, there is evidence of excessive force, which might be logged in, but not thoroughly reviewed or documented.
Visiting the prison, you are told by local officials that the government is working within the resources it has. Complaints of officers working without equipment and lax security on the cell blocks boil down to two essential things: an absence of funding and a critical shortage of staff — conditions that are symptomatic of just about every other prison on the mainland. Even when it comes to electrical repairs (most of the system's security features rely on electricity), projects have to be put out to bid because the government can't afford to bring on electricians at the salaries they're used to making on the outside.
Walking down one of the main hallways in CJC is like being smack dab in the middle of just about every prison movie ever made. The hallway is narrow, with dim overhead lights. The lights don't flicker on and off like they do in the movies, but the paint on the floor is either chipped or non-existent, revealing a bare gray concrete. Fresh blue paint coats the walls, and the smell mingles in with the aroma of freshly baked bread being made in the prison's kitchen. You are told that the prison is old, with a layout that makes it difficult to come into compliance with a few current standards — including a comprehensive mental health service center. Modernization is on its way, but again, that takes money.
You are also told that there has only been one assault in the prison over the past few months, and that all incidents — whether between inmates and officers or between inmates — are logged, reviewed and investigated. And as for the faulty security mechanisms, many of the inmates know how to jam or pick the locks on their cell doors, according to prisons director Julius Wilson.
Thats not supposed to happen when you're living in the prison, according to Martin. Allowing the inmates to roam around their cell block — or cluster — gives them access, particularly when there's no guard present, to the cluster's main door.
Visiting the prison, you can see many inmates with their faces pressed against the glass of the main door. As a safety precaution, you are not allowed to go into a cluster with inmates, but are taken to an empty cell block, one that is being renovated. You are told that all the other clusters look basically the same, with about five individual cells, a small communal shower and lunch table.
At the Annex, the men are housed in cells, while the women sleep in what looks like army barracks or summer camp cabin filled with bunk beds. One guard serves an eight-hour shift at a satellite control station at the end of the room. You are told that if the women start to fight, the open environment is not dangerous for the guard, who has two options: to run into the control room and try to get out the back door into the outside lunchroom, or to radio for backup. The monitors in the main control room downstairs can see what's going on, allowing the guards to immediately run up and help.
You see two of the female guards raise their eyebrows and exchange looks after the explanation was given.
It's pointed out that the prison and annex have backup generators, which automatically turn on when the power goes out. Since the facilities are enclosed, the inmates would stifle in the heat if the air conditioning remains off for a long period of time, said Dwayne Benjamin, prison compliance officer with the Justice Department.
Living in the prison means working without a viable mental health care system, according to ACLU expert Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, who testified at a court hearing last week.
Visiting the prison, you are told that the ongoing health care issues are a sore spot, one that doesn't come with very many remedies. Along with the lack of any kind of forensic facility on island, there are also few psychiatrists available and willing to come in and work, according to officials. There are a couple on staff, along with a doctor and dedicated nurses that run between CJC and the Annex on an almost daily basis. But you can't rehab the existing prison — it's just not feasible, according to officials. The alternative is to continue to transport patients off-island, but that costs more than $35,000 per patient per month. Without a dedicated funding source, that's a hefty load for the government.
But it is a major component of the consent decree that Justice is currently operating under. The decree also holds the department to other specific improvements at the facilities, while a settlement agreement reached in 1994 lays out a timetable for completion. While the ACLU has cited minor improvements, its experts' testimony still pinpointed sore spots which they said put both the inmates and the guards at harm.
Corrections officials say some of the findings are false. There are procedures, there are plans and there are protocols being followed, they said.
It's anybody's guess which of the pictures painted is true. But at this point, it doesn't really matter. After listening to Martin and Metzner, visiting District Court Judge Stanley Brotman said Tuesday that he is giving the government one year to come into compliance with the court's orders — no "ifs, ands or buts." It's then expected that the government and ACLU will file a joint motion terminating the agreement, and bringing the 15 year-old case to an end.
Wilson said Tuesday that a year is not an unreasonable amount of time. Over the next 12 months, the agency — which will be operating on its own by the end of the year — will be able to nail down treatment contracts for the mentally ill inmates, providing more training for the staff, update its policies and procedures, finish up some major repairs and modernize the ages-old infrastructure, he said.
"We're going to use the government's resources wisely," he said. "We also have the backing of the attorney general and the governor, and they're going to provide the resources we need to improve the shortcomings. We're trying to view this as a positive thing — it's time for the facilities to improve."
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