April 12, 2006 — The territory's prison system may become subject to greater oversight with the court-ordered appointment of a special master. Attorney General Kerry Drue said a candidate has been chosen and the name will be submitted to a federal magistrate by Wednesday.
The special master was called for by a federal judge who recently declared the territory in contempt of a consent decree to correct deficiencies at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility. Golden Grove has been termed one of the worst prison systems in the United States by the head of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.
U.S. Magistrate Judge George Cannon gave the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the V.I. attorney general's office 20 days to choose a special master and present their choice to the court. If no agreement could be reached, the magistrate asked the two parties to produce a list of five potential candidates for the court's consideration.
"Pursuant to Magistrate Cannon's order, the parties have met and conferred regarding the selection of a candidate for selection of a special master in the case, 'USA v. Territory of the Virgin Islands.' After conferring telephonically the parties were able to agree to a name. That name will be formally submitted to the court this afternoon," the attorney general said Wednesday.
However, Drue said, it's not clear how soon the judge will signal his approval of the candidate.
The duties of the individual to be chosen were also spelled out in the court order. He or she is expected to begin with a thorough review of a consent decree first issued by the federal court in 1994 to see how well the V.I. government has complied. The special master is also expected to conduct tours of Golden Grove every six months and report on signs that compliance is either improving, slipping, or hasn't changed at all.
Whoever is chosen is expected to have experience in correctional facility operations and management, for a prison of a similar size to Golden Grove. As of March 23, the prison held 570 inmates and detainees. That expertise is expected to include penology, correctional facility management, correctional medical and mental health care, fire safety and environmental health and sanitation.
This is the second time in the history of the 18-year effort to reform the prison system that the federal court has appointed a special master. The last one began service around 1996 and stayed until at least 2001. During that time court records show Attorney General Iver Stridiron issued several challenges to reports issued by the master about the pace of compliance at Golden Grove.
And according to Elizabeth Alexander, director of the Washington-based National Prison Project, the V.I. government has taken some steps to improve prison conditions. What ranks the local prison system among the worst in the country is a pattern of resistance by government officials.
"You're clearly, unfortunately, one of the worst. It's not so much the compliance record but the actual conditions. There's a terrible record of unsafe and dreadfully dangerous conditions in the V.I. prison system," Alexander said, adding that "over a significant period of time the attorney general's office has been extraordinarily uncooperative."
Attorneys from the prison project litigate civil rights cases involving between 20 to 25 U.S. prison systems each year, the director said. Currently the ACLU is involved in litigation involving the treatment of mentally ill prisoners housed in St. Thomas' Criminal Justice Complex. Matters involving Golden Grove on St. Croix are being litigated by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division.
Alexander said if the local government can make progress in improving fire safety and sanitation, correct the medical and mental health systems there, and reduce overcrowding, the Virgin Islands will make a significant move towards meeting its compliance goals.
"These seem like pretty baseline conditions but they would be dramatic improvements," she said.
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