There were no winners in District Court on Friday in a longstanding civil case over conditions in the St. Thomas jail. The judge didn’t like the pace of reform. Bureau of Corrections officials couldn’t keep up with what was required of them.
The civil liberties lawyer who has spent years pressing for jail reforms wasn’t happy either. In a complaint written up in an affidavit and filed May 12, he described a state of chaos at the Criminal Justice Complex and actions by jail personnel he described as appalling.
The subject was mental health. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez wanted to know how much progress had been made over the past three months in creating rules for handling the incarcerated mentally ill.
Friday marked the first evidentiary hearing of 2017 as the American Civil Liberties Union, National Prison Project continued a legal battle for better jail conditions. St. Thomas attorney Ben Currence, who has worked alongside ACLU Attorney Eric Baliban since 1994, hit a discouraging note as he summarized the day’s proceedings.
“They agreed that most of the goals had not been completed and the government had not done what they were supposed to do,” Currence said.
Gomez called a mental health worker from the jail and the assistant warden to answer questions about two inmates whose disruptive behavior apparently had spun out of control.
In one case, a patient identified by the initials C.P., was wrestled to the ground by jail guards and forced to take medication.
Mental health worker Ruth Fahie detailed several incidents in which the inmate assaulted jail personnel with urine and feces. There was also an incident where C.P. allegedly brandished a sharpened toothbrush at Fahie.
There was also an attempt by BOC officials to transfer C.P. to St. Croix by plane, but the inmate was discharged by the pilot after he allegedly attempted to kick out the cabin door.
In an affidavit filed earlier this month, Dr. Kathryn Burns asked the court to direct jail personnel to stop forcing inmates to take medicine because it posed a choking hazard.
Fahie called it an almost unmanageable situation.
“I don’t know what we can do. The jail is not equipped to deal with mental issues at this level,” she said.
Similar problems were described in the case of a federal inmate housed at CJC, identified by the initials S.A.
In a document written by jail personnel, S.A. was described as verbally abusive, pelting personnel with racial epithets, urinating and defecating on the floors. The inmate also attempted suicide twice by allegedly assaulting himself with a plastic utensil.
Assistant Warden Kelvin Williams told the court he put an additional guard on duty to watch S.A. when he returned from the hospital, but the second attempt occurred anyway.
But when Gomez asked Williams if there had been an investigation after the incident, the assistant warden said no.
“We had a discussion,” he said, “and we figured out that the utensils sometimes stick together, so he might have had an extra.”
Baliban, in his affidavit, said he was appalled to find no investigations took place, either after the suicide attempts with S.A. or when C.P. appeared with a shank.
“Was there any investigation as to how C.P. was able to carry a shank into the nurses’ office?” Baliban asked.
“No,” Williams said.
There was one witness on Friday who spelled out what had been done to move some policies forward. Vernicia Charles detailed progress on the intake screening policy, the use of psychotropic drugs and those for providing acute and emergency medical care.
Some could not move towards completion and approval because portions of the policies were not developed yet, Charles said.
Gomez asked why it’s taking so long. “It’s because the process requires so much communications between the parties,” she said.