The V.I. Bureau of Corrections’ movement towards compliance in a decades-old jail consent decree case is now steadier than the progress in some of the territory’s other enduring consent decree cases, Judge Curtis V. Gomez said Friday.
The jail case began in 1994, when inmates at St. Thomas’s Criminal Justice Complex represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the governor of the Virgin Islands and Corrections. The inmates alleged that conditions at the jail – across several different areas including sanitation and medical treatment – were in violation of their constitutional rights.
At the close of Friday’s quarterly evidentiary hearing in District Court, Gomez said he is “heartened” that, although Corrections still faces daunting obstacles towards complying with the case’s most recent settlement agreement, “there is execution beyond other consent decree cases heard this week.”
Other consent decree cases heard by Gomez this week involved wastewater and the Virgin Islands Police Department.
Gomez attributed progress in the jail case to Corrections’ renewed commitment to compliance under the leadership of Director Rick Mullgrav, who took the position in 2016. In decades past, Corrections was held multiple times in contempt of court for “lack of a reasonable effort to comply.”
Corrections was able to meet five of the six goals it agreed to for the last quarter, including finding a vendor for the installation of a new security camera system at the jail. The bureau also developed audit tools for its suicide prevention and restraints policies, performed field tests on new audit tools for administrative directives, and developed a policy on prisoner grievances.
The one quarterly goal Corrections did not meet – completing a review of its intake screening policy to ensure it matched its suicide prevention policy – was completed shortly after the quarterly deadline ended.
At last quarter’s hearing in December, Corrections similarly reported that it had met four out its five goals.
Although ACLU attorney Eric Balaban agreed with the government that “strides have been made” and there is “good cooperation” between the case’s parties, full compliance may be still years out.
Mullgrav reported at the hearing that Corrections is currently acting in accordance with its own five-year plan and, as in other consent decree cases in the territory, funding is a concern.
Many of the aspects of the consent decree that are proving most difficult to satisfy are those that the court considers the most urgent, such as providing adequate treatment for mentally ill detainees and inmates.
At December’s hearing, Corrections reported that it had not completed its goal of implementing a plan to find long-term psychiatric care and hospitalization for mentally ill persons held at the jail.
According to reports written by Kathryn Burns, a mental health expert selected to help the bureau reach compliance, mentally ill inmates have in some cases been locked up in St. Thomas’s jail for months or years without access to the kinds of care they needed. Some detainees had even been previously ruled “not guilty by reason of insanity,” making their criminal punishment unlawful.
At December’s hearing, the question of the V.I. Department of Health’s role in finding treatment for such detainees was discussed, but no policy-making officials from Health were present.
On Friday, Health Commissioner Michelle Davis and Mental Health Division Director Berlina Wallace-Berube clarified for the court that their department’s role in hospitalizing currently jailed mentally ill persons will increase.
According to Davis, a 2010 memorandum of understanding between Health and Corrections is in the process of being updated to specify that finding a way to hospitalize detainees found not guilty by reason of insanity is the responsibility of the Health Department.
The Eldra Shulterbrandt facility, the territory’s long-term mental health care facility, is not prepared to accept any residents from the jail in the short or long term. There is also no immediate plan to renovate a property on St. Croix given to Health in December for the purposes of expanding it mental health facilities, Davis said
On Feb. 2, Health and Corrections officials met with representatives from Government House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Human Resources to discuss several possibilities for transporting mentally ill jail detainees to off-island facilities.
Wallace-Berube said a contract has been drafted but not yet executed with Correct Care Solutions’ Columbia Regional Care Center, a facility in South Carolina. Officials from Corrections and Health have visited the facility.
If the contract with Correct Care is executed in the coming month, as Health officials expect, the department will be responsible for funding the treatment of patients relocated there. Five patients already transported to Sylmar Rehabilitation Center in California, however, will continue to be the financial responsibility of Corrections.