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V.I. Says Federal Suit Ignores Progress at Golden Grove

Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix. (Photo © Eric Crossan)U.S. Virgin Islands officials said Friday the federal government failed to take into account its efforts put into fixing conditions at St. Croix’s Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility before filing a motion to take over the prison.

The U.S. Department of Justice Thursday filed a motion in U.S. District Court to have the prison placed in receivership. A Justice spokesperson said Friday it is the first time the department’s Civil Rights Division has sought receivership of a correctional facility.

If the judge agrees, it would place management of the facility in the hands of a "receiver," who would have authority to fix the problems that have been at the center of a 25-year legal battle between the federal government and the territory.

The office of Gov. John deJongh Jr. said the action fails to consider the progress that has been made, especially in the last five years.

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"Given our unrelenting steps forward, constant even if slow, under this administration and in the last couple years under the director, this is disappointing news," the administration said in a statement. "This was a problem a quarter-century in the making which we inherited and have made more progress than any of the 20 years before combined."

The governor’s office said despite budget shortfalls and difficult economic times, it "rolled up its sleeves and went to work, finally getting medical and dental care to inmates, creating a real library, developing inmate programs that are aimed at teaching inmates real skills and giving the residents purpose … not to mention making varied capital improvements, placing secure telephones throughout the complex, increasing personnel and providing training."

Julius C. Wilson, the director of the V.I. Bureau of Corrections, said he was dismayed by the federal government’s action.

“By filing its request for a federal takeover of the territory’s prison system, the U.S. Department of Justice has ignored the significant effort and infusion of capital funds that the deJongh-Francis Administration has funneled into Golden Grove in the past several years, especially since my appointment as director in October 2008,” Wilson said.

Wilson acknowledged the territory’s prison system has been under a federal consent decree for the more than two decades, presenting what he calls “an inherited problem generated from years of neglect due to insufficient resources, personnel issues and an aging infrastructure incapable of supporting the burgeoning prison population.”

But the territory has made progress, he said.

“In recent years the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections has made steady, albeit slow, progress toward meeting the mandates of the consent decree,” Wilson said, “by not only improving upon the physical plant at Golden Grove, but also by providing its residents with increased quality of care.”

Since January 1, 2008, the bureau has hired 122 employees, including a medical director, dentist, dental assistant, psychologist, psychiatrist, two social workers and several registered nurses, Wilson said. The hires also include a training specialist, construction superintendent and 69 correctional officers.

He added that the facility’s security has been upgraded with the installation of perimeter fencing, lighting, and a security camera surveillance system. The number of security personnel has been increased and a classification system for detainees and sentenced inmates has been implemented. Intelligence-based shakedowns of the facility occur frequently and all inmates are required to wear ID’s. Inmate property control systems are also in place.

Wilson and the administration also said other programs have been initiated to address inmates’ needs and provide structured use of leisure time. These include through vocational training and the expansion of the prison agriculture program. A prison chaplain was also recently instated to facilitate faith-based programs.

In filing the petition for receivership Thursday, federal officials noted that the issue has been festering for a quarter-century, and the recent progress hasn’t been nearly enough.

“We cannot continue to allow prisoners to live in unsafe, filthy and hazardous conditions without constitutionally required medical and mental health care,” said Ronald W. Sharpe, U.S. Attorney for the District of the Virgin Islands.

The federal government noted that since last July six inmates have been stabbed, and drugs, weapons and other contraband flow into the prison almost unopposed.

A spokesman from the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., speaking Friday without giving her name, said if the federal judge approves the petition, a receiver will take over management of the facility with the authority to "fix the problems." The prison will still belong to the territory and the territory’s government will still be responsible for implementing and paying for the changes.

The exact nature and scope of the receiver’s authority would be determined by the judge’s order, assuming the federal government’s petition was successful. The spokesperson was not able to give a date for a hearing in the suit.

The U.S. brought the complaint under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

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