Virgin Island jails ill-equipped to handle mentally ill

People suffering from mental illness are often brought to correctional facilities because there's no place to put them


A.J. Rao
The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands — Virgin Islanders suffering from mental illness are often brought to corrections facilities because there is nowhere else to put them.

According to Wynnie Testamark, director nominee of the V.I. Bureau of Corrections, many may indeed “deteriorate” in confinement as long as hospital beds for the mentally ill remain scant.

“The Legislature must address the chronic lack of hospital beds in the territory for those suffering from an acute mental illness,” said Testamark, during testimony Wednesday before the V.I. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety on St. Thomas.

“An inmate with mental illness, who may not have committed any crime, may spend months or even years at the St. Thomas jail pending appropriate treatment.”

According to Testamark, of the 43 inmates being held in pre-trial detention at the St. Thomas jail, 18 are suffering from some form of mental illness. Some of these inmates have not been charged with any crime or were arrested for minor misdemeanors.

“They are being kept at the St. Thomas jail simply because the territory does not have a long-term, psychiatric facility for chronically mental health patients that could house them,” Testamark said.

At the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix, there are 29 patients on the mental health case log — of which, 18 are “severely mentally ill.”

According to Ruth Warren, mental health coordinator for the Bureau of Corrections, who also appeared Wednesday, health officials are providing quality care for the mentally ill at the jails, but the care is not enough.

“The problem we’re having is that there are services that we need on the outside — like a long-term treatment facility,” Warren said. “Our mental health patients can no longer be treated at our facility. They need a higher level of care which we don’t offer and I’m not in favor of sending people off-island because families will not be able to see them.”

Indeed, the mental health shortfalls of the St. Thomas jail are a large part of its “non-compliance” status with a 1994 federal consent decree.

Since environment and surroundings play an important part in the treatment of the mentally ill, Testamark said efforts have already begun to retrofit a portion of the St. Thomas jail to allow for the direct supervision of the mentally ill inside the detention facility.

“Contractors have already been hired to reconfigure an area in one of the clusters at the St. Thomas jail for this purpose,” Testamark said. “To make room for this reconfiguration, 27 prisoners will be transferred from the St. Thomas jail to Golden Grove later this month.”

Testamark said the bureau is also in the process of scheduling crisis intervention training for correctional officers and the American Correctional Association will provide training for staff and community stakeholders on managing the mentally ill.

Sen. Novelle Francis said he believes the 33rd Legislature has made a strong commitment to tackle mental illness and cited his successful legislation that granted $5 million for a behavioral health facility and $1 million for each district to enhance outreach.

Other issues

Deteriorating facilities, limited staffing and two federal consent decrees continue to dog the bureau — all of which, according to Testamark, are not only years in the making but interrelated.

“Deteriorating and dangerous facilities prevent full compliance with the federal consent decrees and lead to low morale among the staff, which makes it harder to recruit and retain qualified correctional professionals,” Testamark said. “These challenges cannot be solved overnight with quick fixes. Ultimately, we will need to build new facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix.”

Bureau officials told lawmakers they will meet with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Witt O’Brien’s today to discuss repairing or replacing the annex facility on St. Thomas that was damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Officials said they are beginning an “aggressive” retainment and recruitment drive to replenish 96 vacancies in its 186-member workforce.

Morale, however, is an issue, according to Testamark.

“The employees are tired of the ‘same-old, same-old,’ ” she said. “They feel that no one cares about them. They feel that Corrections is looked down upon versus the police department, so they feel as though they’re the stepchild of the law enforcement community.”

The bureau currently houses 192 inmates locally — 88 at the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas, and 104 at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix, according to Corrections officials.

In addition to these, the bureau pays between $12 million and $15 million a year to house 179 inmates in off-island correctional facilities on the U.S. mainland.

Lawmakers questioned why the cost to house a prisoner in the Virgin Islands is twice the cost of housing a prisoner on the mainland — specifically, $240 per day in the territory and between $67 and $85 per day in the mainland.

“The disparity is [due to] staffing, the cost to maintain the buildings, the cost to feed inmates — currently, the bureau pays $1.8 million to Trinity [Food Service Group] to feed 200 inmates,” Testamark said. “That alone and the maintenance, and the cost of officers and the overtime — the mainland doesn’t have those costs.”

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©2019 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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