ACLU Testimony to Virgin Islands Legislature Urges Overhaul of Prison System
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Lawyer Supports Proposal to Make Bureau of Corrections its Own Governmental Agency
ST. THOMAS, VI – An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer advocated Wednesday that lawmakers in the Virgin Islands adopt a bill that would establish the Bureau of Corrections as its own governmental agency headed by a cabinet-level director appointed by the governor. In testimony given before the Virgin Islands Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice, Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said the bill would create greater accountability for prison officials and go a long way toward improving what he described as the “unconstitutional and dangerous conditions” at the Virgin Islands Criminal Justice Complex (CJC).
The bill, primarily sponsored by Sen. Alvin Williams, Jr. and co-sponsored by Senate President Usie Richards and Senators Carmen Wesselhoft and Shawn-Michael Malone, would remove the Bureau of Corrections (BOC) from the auspices of the Virgin Islands Justice Department and have it managed by governor-appointed wardens.
“I applaud the efforts by…members of the Committee to perform oversight that the Department of Justice is either unable or unwilling to perform,” Balaban said, “and I urge this Committee to reform a broken corrections system that puts the lives and safety of prisoners, staff, and the public at risk.”
Balaban also recommended the hiring of an ombudsman to review and investigate complaints about living and working conditions within the territory’s corrections facilities and that legislators amend Virgin Islands law to mandate that prisoners found not guilty by reason of insanity be transferred from the Bureau of Corrections within 60 days.
“The lack of leadership and accountability within the BOC has created and fostered a culture of neglect within the Bureau,” Balaban said. “As a result, seriously ill Virgin Islands prisoners unnecessarily have suffered at BOC facilities, conditions are hazardous, the facilities are understaffed, the staff is undertrained, and the lives and safety of those who live and work at BOC facilities are at constant risk.”
Prison officials in the Virgin Islands have ignored for more than 13 years repeated orders by federal judge Stanley Brotman to make specific improvements in virtually every aspect of operations and conditions at the CJC and the CJC Annex. The Virgin Islands government has been held in contempt four times during that time and is currently operating under two separate contempt sanctions.
In the most recent contempt decision issued in February 2007, Brotman found there was no mental health care system at the CJC, that leadership within the BOC and Department of Justice had repeatedly flouted court deadlines and broken promises to improve health care services, and that seriously ill prisoners had languished at the jail essentially untreated as a result.
The Virgin Islands is the only jurisdiction in the United States that keeps imprisoned and untreated citizens who have been found not guilt by reason of insanity in their criminal trials. An October 2007 report issued by Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., a mental health expert who has been monitoring the mental health services at CJC for more than three years, reported that “drastic intervention is necessary to implement the desperately needed changes and remedy the drastic mental health system problems” at the CJC. In November, Balaban requested that Brotman fine top governmental officials for not complying with orders to transfer those inmates to psychiatric hospitals.
“It is not only unconstitutional to punish people because of their mental illness, but it is also inhumane,” Balaban said.
The idea of taking the Bureau of Corrections out from under the control of the Department of Justice has been discussed informally within the Virgin Islands Legislature for a number of years, but never before has a bill been formally introduced.
“The Committee should fix the procedural and substantive barriers that now prevent the Bureau of Corrections from carrying out its core duties, and which insulate BOC personnel from being held accountable in carrying out their public duties.”
Metzner’s October 2007 report on mental health care at CJC can be found online at:
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