Feb. 14, 2005 – The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge Monday to hold the V.I. government in contempt and appoint an overseer to impose change at Golden Grove prison.
Calling prison conditions "deplorable" and "unconstitutional," Joseph Sperber, an attorney for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the Virgin Islands has not improved Golden Grove as mandated by a 1986 agreement with the federal government.
"For 20 years the Virgin Islands didn't listen to the Justice Department, didn't do what they agreed to do," Sperber told St. Croix Magistrate Judge George W. Cannon Jr.
Sperber characterized the 600-inmate prison on St. Croix as decrepit and dangerous, listing critical staffing shortages, lack of security and safety policies, lack of heath care and mental health care for prisoners, inadequate fire prevention measures and numerous other problems.
Sperber said the appointment of an overseer with judicial authority to impose fines — a corrections expert called a special master — would force the V.I. government to comply with the 1986 agreement.
Attorney General Kerry Drue disagreed with Sperber's assessment.
"We strongly disagree with the United States' characterization of the Virgin Islands' efforts to comply with the consent decree and other court orders," Drue said. "They are certainly not the nightmare the United States urges the court to believe."
Drue and Carol Jacobs, assistant attorney general, argued the prison had improved and that the U.S. Justice Department had not done enough to help the process. They also said money for a special master would be better spent directly at the prison.
In his recent supplemental budget request, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull asked the Legislature for an extra $3 million for the Bureau of Corrections — a figure Director Joseph Ponteen said was $1.7 million less than he had asked for.
Ponteen said he'd gladly accept help from any source, including a special master. He called the prison's problems "a nightmare" and said he needed 100 more prison officers.
"Sooner or later you wake from a nightmare, but you have to have all the things in place, the funding. If something doesn't happen, this nightmare will continue," Ponteen said.
Cannon said he would make a ruling after March 13.
In a separate case, a federal judge in St. Thomas has twice found the V.I. government in contempt for failing to improve prison conditions as mandated by a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union 11 years ago.
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