Testimony at a quarterly evidentiary hearing in District Court on Friday revealed that little has changed regarding suicide prevention policy at St. Thomas’s Alexander Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex since an inmate awaiting trial there took her own life in 2014.
Friday’s hearing was the latest in a case stretching back more than 20 years. In 1994, inmates at St. Thomas’s jail represented by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the governor of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. Bureau of Corrections, alleging that conditions at the jail were in violation of their constitutional rights.
Corrections’ attempt to comply with a resulting consent decree has dragged on through five V.I. administrations.
One of the mandates of the latest settlement in the case, reached in 2013, is that Corrections must implement a sound suicide prevention and mental health policy, as well as build the infrastructure to house any inmates classified as suicide risks at its facilities.
The 2014 suicide of Heather Dawn Turfley shone a light on the issue of inmate mental health in the territory, but on Friday, Corrections officials struggled to identify any “inroads” made since Turfley’s death that might prevent similar incidents.
Neither the Criminal Justice Complex nor the Alva A. Swan Annex are equipped with a cell designed to house inmates who are at risk of suicide, something Corrections has been ordered to address. There is also no set policy or training related to at-risk inmates, although Corrections health services administrator Vernita Charles said she began working with the bureau’s monitors to change that in September 2015.
Charles said that current practice at the jails is to transport any inmate in need of medical examination or treatment to the hospital. Corrections’ memorandum of understanding with the hospital doesn’t specifically mention inmates who are at risk of suicide, but Charles said such instances would be covered by language in the memorandum related to mental health.
But when questioned by attorney Eric Balaban on when that memorandum was signed, Charles answered 2011, three years before Turfley committed suicide while in custody.
Presiding Judge Curtis V. Gomez said in his closing statements that Charles’ answer concerned him. He said that the goal of coming up with new policy is to ensure that no inmates with mental illnesses “fall through the cracks” as Turfley did.
“If I ask for an inroad made after an incident in 2014, a policy that existed in 2011 is not an inroad,” said Gomez.
When called to testify, Corrections Director Rick Mullgrav said that since Turfley’s death, the mental illness screening process has been “looked at more thoroughly” and Corrections has increased accountability for those doing the screening. But he declined to offer any additional specifics other than correcting a moment in Charles’ testimony when she said the bureau’s facilities are not in possession of “suicide cut-down tools” as mandated by the consent decree.
Mullgrav said each of the territory’s correctional facilities do have those tools and officers have been shown how to use them to potentially save lives, although there has not been a related training program per se.
Balaban, who is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said that his tough line of questioning was meant to drive home his position that Corrections has a history of failing to comply with its consent decree despite several of its mandates being “matters of life and death.”
One area where Corrections made progress last quarter was on its mandate to establish a six to 12 month staffing plan.
Corrections’ human resources manager Yvonne D. Lawrence said that the understaffed agency has set the goal of hiring 25 additional corrections officers within the next 12 months.
To meet 2017 staffing goals recommended by Corrections’ monitors, the department would need to hire 47 additional corrections officers. The current Corrections budget only allows for an additional 22, 17 of which Lawrence says are either finishing up training or somewhere in the hiring and eligibility pipeline.
Lawrence has promised to make a big recruitment push via job fairs and advertising, but one of the largest recruitment obstacles Corrections has faced in the past remains unaddressed. The bureau’s relatively low starting salary for corrections officers, $24,500 per year, makes it easy for other law enforcement agencies with higher starting salaries to poach recruits during their training.
Mullgrav said that low pay also makes it difficult for Corrections to retain long-term officers given the stressful nature of the job.
The bureau is trying to address both those issues by signing a memorandum with other enforcement agencies prohibiting them from recruiting new Corrections hires while they are in training, and also including in its contracts the provision that employees will not receive favorable recommendations if they leave Corrections before three years of employment.
A bill to increase Corrections’ funding was scheduled to come before the Legislature on Friday, but Mullgrav said his understanding was that any increase in funding received through the bill would go towards bringing current Corrections salaries in line with increases that have long been postponed, rather than raising the bureau’s starting salaries.
Gomez said that although Corrections continued last quarter to let some of its deadlines slip, he is cautiously optimistic about a renewed sense of energy under new leadership to comply with the consent decree.
He advised the plaintiff and defendant to work out miscommunications that appeared to be leading to confusion over which goals Corrections should be prioritizing each quarter.
“I don’t want us to fall into the trend with so many other consent decree cases that come before this court, where the refrain after the hearing is ‘well, nice try,’” said Gomez.
Gomez said it was particularly urgent for Corrections to come into compliance with the mental health policy portion of the consent decree.