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Contempt Order Entered Against Virgin Island’s Prison Mental Health Care

Contempt Order Entered Against Virgin Island’s Prison Mental Health Care

A Virgin Islands federal district court has held territory officials in contempt, ruling that they willfully violated the court’s orders. That finding came in a class action suit dating back to 1994 which challenges “inhumane and dangerous conditions” at the Criminal Justice Complex (CJC) and CJC Annex in St. Thomas.

The parties entered into a Settlement Agreement in October 1994. Since that time, the court has issued several remedial orders. It has also held the defendants in contempt three previous times. The current, or fourth, contempt finding relates to serious failures in mental health care and appropriate housing for mentally ill prisoners.

The court’s latest order spent considerable time discussing mentally ill defendants who had been found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). By 2003, the CJC was holding four such prisoners. They were eventually transferred to the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility (ACF). At intake, the ACF counselor indicated that she was “at a loss of what to do” regarding the treatment of those prisoners. ACF’s lone psychiatrist wrote to document his “serious concerns about remanding individuals who are not convicted nor convictable to a prison where he spends over 20 hours daily in his cell.”

In December 2003 the court ordered the NGRI prisoners to be moved to a forensic facility. What has transpired since can only be described as more than three years of subterfuge and unfulfilled promises. First, territory officials said they were seeking a psychiatric facility outside the Island because no adequate facility existed on the Island.
While they made inquiries with a few facilities, they made no actual transfers despite a Puerto Rico facility agreeing to accept two of the NGRIs. Territory officials have since promised the court that they were near completion of their own forensic facility.

On the eve of a February 2005 contempt hearing, the NGRI patients were transferred to a psychiatric unit at the Juan E. Luis Hospital (JLH) on St. Croix. In January 2006, the NGRIs were moved back to ACF without notice to the court or class counsel. While at JLH the NGRIs’ conditions improved drastically; one was even recommended to be discharged. After returning to ACF they began to deteriorate and again became a threat to themselves and others. In March 2006, the court ordered territory officials to move the NGRIs to a psychiatric forensic facility. By February 27, 2007, however, the defendants still had not taken any action on the order.

The court detailed the case of Jonathan Ramos, who was arrested in April 2002 for allegedly attempting to steal a bicycle. His five-year stay “at the jail has been chaotic, ‘characterized by active psychosis, unpredictability, and dangerous behavior,’” the court stated. He assaulted guards and fellow prisoners, causing him to be on constant lock-down for two years because he was such a serious security threat. Despite acknowledging that Ramos will never be returned to competency, territory officials have allowed him to languish in confinement without seriously attempting to place him in a proper facility.

Over the past three years Virgin Islands officials have failed to live up to commitments they made to remedy jail conditions. During that period they missed four deadlines to re-open the Annex, and left the NGRI patients “virtually untreated in a general population unit at ACF.” Also, they failed to move Ramos or assist his sister in getting him committed.

To solve the Ramos issue, officials dropped the criminal charges against him. The court, however, held that action did not entitle the defendants to ignore the court’s order to hospitalize him. The court found the dismissal of the charges was a blatant attempt to subvert its order; all the equities in this case, the court held, required enforcement of its order to hospitalize Ramos.

Territory officials were held in contempt for failing to hospitalize Ramos, failing to place the NGRIs in a forensic unit, failing to integrate the prisoners’ medical and psychiatric files, and failing to staff and make repairs at the CJC Annex and complete construction of their own forensic unit. The district court withheld coercive contempt proceedings to allow the territory’s newly-elected Governor and his new appointments to the Attorney General and Bureau of Corrections offices to act. The defendants were given sixty days to submit a progress report. See: Carty v. DeJongh, USDC D.Virgin Islands, Case No. 3:94-cv-00078-SSB-GWB (Feb. 27, 2007), 2007 WL 817607.

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Related legal case

Carty v. DeJongh,