The pictures of six black men stared back at me from the screen, the images of their faces shredded by bullet holes. It seemed like some kind of sick threat, but it was the work of a Florida police department.
This morning, I was greeted by the sickening news that the North Miami Beach Police Department (NMBPD) is using mug shots of black people and others for target practice. Mind you, these are not cartoons or computer-generated mug shots—these are photographs of real people, some of whom were arrested by the NMBPD itself.
I was amazed, appalled, and terribly disappointed by this practice. And if I was shocked, imagine the reaction of the Florida National Guard Band member who arrived at the shooting range last month only to find her brother's 15-year-old mug shot, riddled with bullet holes, following target practice by NMBPD officers.
In the aftermath of Ferguson, many of the lessons we've learned about what works and what doesn't in law enforcement have been reinforced. Among them is the importance of law enforcement working closely with communities to build trust. We learned that communities of color far too often view law enforcement officers as enforcers, not protectors, as a result of policies and practices that unfairly treat them like criminals.
We also know that valuing the lives of black people—and all people, for that matter—is critical to establishing healthy, collaborative relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. But if the NMBPD truly believes that "black lives matter," they have a funny way of showing it.
This incident raises deep concern about whether the NMBPD understands the full implications of this practice and the message this sends to communities of color—especially since North Miami Beach Police Chief J. Scott Dennis has shrugged off the incident, saying that policies were not violated and that there is no discipline forthcoming for the officers involved.
Good policing isn't just about policies written on paper, it's about the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they are entrusted with protecting. Mutual trust and respect between police and the communities they serve is critical for effective police work.
In a world where the images that bombard us reinforce unconscious racial biases, using the mug shots of black men for target practice reinforces the power of hidden bias to influence police conduct and perpetuate racialized policing. Whether policies were broken or not, having officers train by shooting at images of real life people from the community tells the community that the police see them as targets, engendering fear and resentment, not trust.
As ACLU's Washington Legislative Director Laura Murphy put it in her testimony this week to the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a police culture that doesn't respect the community, "results in a relationship based on mistrust between law enforcement and our low income communities and communities of color. Such a culture results in police killing unarmed black men with little accountability."
The North Miami Beach Police has a duty is to serve and protect all communities equally, but anything that breaks down the trust that is critical for effective police work jeopardizes public safety. Using the mug shots of black people for police target practice raises serious concerns about their commitment to that goal.
Blog of Rights: Official Blog of the American Civil Liberties Union
When I met my husband, I knew I wanted to be with him for the rest of my life, until death parted us. Most people feel that way when they meet the love of their life. But most people don't think that the time to part would come so soon. Or at least, when it does come, they don't think that they will have to fight for the basic dignity of having their marriage recognized.
Sadly, that is what John and I went through.
I met John in 1992, and for 21 wonderful years we built a life for ourselves in Cincinnati, Ohio. Weworked as IT consultants, participated in community organizations and doted on our nieces and nephews. For much of our relationship, because we were a gay couple, we thought that marriage would be closed to us. Even though we were like every other loving and committed couple that we knew, we were denied the protections and dignity that come with marriage.
In 2011, we received the devastating diagnosis that John had ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. There is no cure. We knew that we had limited time. I had the honor of caring for John as ALS stole every ability from him. Rarely a day went by that he didn't apologize to me for getting sick, even though he carried no blame.
Two years after his diagnosis, we watched with great interest as Edie Windsor fought the woefully named "Defense of Marriage Act" in the courts. Edie's story resonated with us because Edie was fighting for recognition of her marriage to Thea Spyer following Thea's death. Like Edie and Thea, John and I knew that our fight would continue after John died.
Weeks after Edie's victory at the Supreme Court, we decided to get married. Ohio, where we built our home and our lives together, still does not permit same-sex couples to marry. Though we would have loved to be wed in our home state, our friends and family helped us charter a medically equipped plane to fly to Maryland. There, on the tarmac while still on board the plane, John and I were finally legally married.
We returned to Ohio to live out John's last days as a married couple. But Ohio refused to recognize us as married for any purpose.. We fervently hoped that John would live to see the day that our marriage would be acknowledged by our home state. The thought that John would be listed as "single" and the "surviving spouse" entry would be blank on his death certificate broke both of our hearts. We went to court seeking recognition of our marriage on John's death certificate. The judge granted our request to have his death certificate properly issued when the time came.
John tragically did not live to see marriage recognized for all gay and lesbian couples in Ohio. He passed away last October. He was only 47. And still, the state continues to seek to deny him his dying wish. Though I have John's death certificate that lists him as "married" and identifies me as his surviving spouse, the state has appealed the court's ruling and plans to remove my name from his death certificate should they succeed.
Nobody should ever have to suffer the indignities that John and I have endured. A ruling striking down Ohio's marriage recognition bans in the context of death certificates would mean no couple would have to live through the uncertainty that we did in the most painful moments of our lives. Every family deserves the peace of mind of knowing that they will be able to take care of each other in good times and bad, until death parts them. Every day that couples like John and I go on without that right is too long.
I continue to fight for John's last wish to have our marriage respected. And I fight for all caring and devoted Ohio couples, too.
James Obergefell is a plaintiff in Obergefell, et al. v. Hodges, one of four marriage equality cases that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term. The ACLU is proud to be co-counsel in this case.
We knew almost immediately. It was love at first sight.
I met Paul in the summer of 1991 in Louisville, Kentucky. Paul lived in Western New York and was visiting his brother who lived in Louisville. It was his last day of a one-week stay.
After Paul returned to New York, we talked on the phone every day and took weekend trips from New York to Louisville and from Louisville to New York for months. Paul was a third grade teacher at an elementary school in Western New York, and I had recently become a nurse in the intensive care unit at a local hospital in Louisville.
In those early days, many of our conversations centered around how significant family is in our lives. We are both from very large families and know how vital it is to have family connections. Our biggest dream was to become parents and have children of our own.
After six months of dating long distance, Paul gave up his job in New York and moved to Louisville. On Christmas 1992, we exchanged rings to symbolize our commitment to each other. We also decided to pursue our dream of becoming parents and start a family.
After doing a ton of research on adoption, visiting multiple agencies and encountering more than one setback, we finally met our boys.
We were connected to a birthmother who had delivered twins, and she wanted to place them in a home together. She only wanted to be assured the children would remain together in a loving home. We were thrilled! All of our dreams came true when our boys came home, and we continued to build the family we had always wanted.
Of course the legal process of becoming parents to the twins proved to be quite tumultuous. Because Kentucky limits a joint adoption by two adults to people who are married, we had to pursue a "single-parent" adoption. As a result, Paul is the only legal parent to our twin boys. It was and continues to be painful that we aren't both legally acknowledged as fathers and both legally responsible as parents.
After only a few years, we decided it was time to add a princess to our family. We went through the same process, and a birthmother, who was scheduled to deliver a biracial baby girl in only six weeks, selected us to adopt her daughter. Four years later, we decided to be foster parents to a 7-year-old who Paul met through his work as a school counselor. But again, Kentucky's marriage laws meant that only one of us could become the "official" foster parent.
So our family had grown to four children, which was more of a blessing than we could have ever dreamed of.
We have never stopped fighting to receive legal protections for our children and each other. Because we have not both been able to secure legal relationships with our children through marriage or adoption, we sought out legal advice and have tried to draw up agreements such as medical powers of attorney to protect our kids. We have done everything we can but we know that our family is still at risk. For example, if one parent became disabled, insurance benefits would only apply to the child or children legally adopted by that parent.
Nothing offers the protection that marriage affords.
In July 2008, our family enjoyed a vacation in Palm Springs, California, visiting with Paul's brother, who who was also in a same-sex relationship. At that time, the state of California began performing marriages for same-sex couples. Therefore we, along with Paul's brother and his signficiant other, applied for marriage licenses. Even though we knew our marriage "wouldn't count" in Kentucky, we were married in the mayor's office in Palm Springs in a double wedding, each couple witnessing each others' commitment to their life-long partner. Our children were able to participate in this event that we will vividly remember for the rest of our lives.
As with all families, unexpected situations challenge our strength and courage. In 2012, Paul was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of only 46, which was devastating. Not only was he diagnosed with a life-threatenting disease, but we were faced with additional challenges on how to interact with a healthcare system that had the legal right to discriminate against us and to exclude me from decisions about Paul's healthcare.
Today our kids are thriving and we want to protect them as best we can so that they continue to succeed and experience all that is possible in this world. That's why we joined a federal lawsuit seeking respect for marriages between same-sex couples legally performed in other states herein Kentucky.
We've fought hard to create our beautiful family, and we'll continue to show our kids the power of standing up for what's right.
Randy Johnson and his husband Paul live in Louisville, Kentucky, with their four kids. They are plaintiffs in Bourke v. Beshear, one of four freedom to marry cases from the 6th Circuit, which will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.
By Patrick C. Toomey, Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
The Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledged yesterday yet another government program involving the bulk collection of Americans' call records. In a three-page court filing in a criminal case long shrouded in secrecy, the DEA said that – up until September 2013 – it collected en masse information about U.S. calls made to and from certain countries.
The only country named in the filing is Iran, but the DEA stated that the program encompassed a number of foreign countries "that were determined to have a demonstrated nexus to international drug trafficking and related criminal activities." The total number of countries covered by the program remains secret. Yet the filing raises the prospect that the DEA has been collecting a record of every call to Mexico, the Bahamas, Iran, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries on the theory that all those calls are "relevant" to the DEA's international drug-trafficking investigations. (Consider the fact that the DEA currently maintains foreign offices in 67 countries.)
The disclosure underscores how the government has extended its use of bulk collection far beyond the NSA and the national security context, into ordinary law enforcement. And it shows how a strained and untenable theory of "relevance" has been used to justify the surveillance of millions of innocent Americans using laws that were never written for that purpose.
The DEA database represents the fourth government program involving bulk collection of call records disclosed to date. The other bulk-collection programs are:
- Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the NSA collects call records in bulk from a number of major U.S. telecommunications providers. These phone records can be queried in terrorism investigations with the approval of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and in any investigation where the government has obtained a FISA order for electronic surveillance. The results of those queries – which may together comprise millions of call records – are pooled in a shadow database that may be searched and analyzed without any FISA court supervision, and for a far wider range of purposes. The ACLU is challenging the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' call records in a number of cases around the country.
- Under Executive Order 12,333, the NSA collects as many as 5 billion phone records each day, according to a report in The Washington Post. Those phone records are collected outside the United States, but may be queried for telephone contacts within the United States under certain procedures. A number of other federal agencies may be able to search the database containing these aggregated phone records using ICREACH, an NSA-built interface designed to facilitate searches of information gathered under Executive Order 12,333.
- Using the Hemisphere Program, law enforcement agents have access to a database of call records reaching back as far as 1987, as reported by The New York Times. AT&T provides access to the phone records, but the database is not limited to AT&T customers. Instead, AT&T collects information on all calls crossing its network, whether or not they originate with an AT&T subscriber. This program is the subject of litigation in at least one criminal case, in which the ACLU and EFF filed an amicus brief.
The proliferation of these bulk-collection programs exposes the breadth and danger of the government's legal theories. In defending the NSA's bulk collection of phone records under Section 215, the government has repeatedly attempted to explain away the fact that its legal theories would allow bulk collection in contexts far removed from national security and terrorism, making Americans' financial records, prescription records, and other information vulnerable to government surveillance in ordinary criminal investigations.
The new DEA program belies the government's claims. It shows that the NSA's use of Section 215 is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the bulk collection of information about innocent Americans.
By James Esseks, Director, ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project
This is it – the end game in the longstanding campaign to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide is upon us. The U.S. Supreme Court has just announced it will hear freedom-to-marry cases in all four states in the Sixth Circuit- Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. We're thrilled to be co-counsel in the Kentucky and Ohio cases.
With today's SCOTUS announcement we are entering what we hope will be the last phase of a journey towards greater dignity and equality for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people that started decades ago and has accelerated at a truly astounding rate over the last year and a half. A win before the high court would be a watershed moment for the LGBT rights movement.
It's clear from a few simple facts that the country is ready for the freedom to marry nationwide:
- 36 states now allow same-sex couples to marry
- 71 percent of the U.S. population lives in a freedom-to-marry state
- 59 percent of Americans support marriage equality
Adding the remaining 29 percent of the population to the marriage column, while momentous for LGBT equality, would not impose sweeping new change on the country. If South Carolina, Utah, Florida, and Oklahoma are all marriage states, then surely Texas and South Dakota can handle it, too.
It's also evident why marriage is so important. Marriage makes clear that both the state and society value and protect a relationship. Same-sex couples have been making the commitment at the heart of marriage for decades, but they have been treated as legal strangers by state after state and told that their relationships are less worthy.
Plus, showing the country all the same-sex couples who want to marry –and who do marry – has helped people understand that gay people's relationships are built around love, often are long-term, and increasingly involve raising children who thrive. All of those realities, which gay people find unremarkable, help the rest of America overcome the anti-gay stereotypes that they grew up with.
Finally, it's clear how we've gotten to this moment of such promise – through decades of concerted effort by LGBT people and allies all across America. The ACLU is proud to have been part of getting us here. We brought the first lawsuit in the country seeking the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in 1970. Over the years since then, we have worked in courts, legislatures, and in ballot campaigns to win marriage equality all across the country. We represented Edie Windsor in her landmark case taking down the core of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 and have filed 17 marriage cases since then, covering every region of the country.
What's not clear – yet – is just how the end game, well, ends. We'll know that come summer, but we do already know several things: That if we win, the country can handle it. That if we lose, we will still change the remaining anti-gay laws by going back to the ballot. And that we can never stop working to change the culture in America so that it understands and embraces LGBT people in all of our wonderful diversity.
Marriage will help us do that, so we welcome the end game – bring it!
By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
David Sirota of the International Business Times reported last week that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and his appointee, the deputy governor of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had released a political opponent's private tollbooth data in order to embarrass him.
Under criticism from the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg at a hearing on toll increases, the Port Authority official, Bill Baroni, fought back, as Sirota describes:
"Respectfully, Senator, you only started paying tolls recently," Baroni said, according to a transcript of the exchange. "In fact, I have a copy of your free E-ZPass," he continued, holding up a physical copy of the toll pass Lautenberg had received as a benefit from his tenure as a Port Authority commissioner. "You took 284 trips for free in the last 2 years you had a pass."
The next day, in a press conference, Christie used the data to attack Lautenberg more specifically about the details of his travel:
I find it interesting, too, by the way, in 2005 and 2006, that he went over the Hudson River 284 times. Where was he going?... I think he needs to answer that. 'Cause he's supposed to be the senator from New Jersey. So what's he doing going over the bridge or through the tunnel to New York three or four times a week for 2005 and 2006?... Did he ever spend any time in New Jersey?
MSNBC also has a story on this with video of Christie and Baroni's attacks.
As I told Sirota, this incident ties together a lot of the reasons we worry about privacy: that location data is very personal (as we tried to convey last year in this video). That information is power and always raises the temptation for abuse through Nixonian dirty tricks, embarrassment of rivals, or leverage over critics. And that every incident of abuse that actually happens casts a long shadow of chilling effects over those who just worry about how data might be used. If officials feel comfortable using information against a senator, what is a lower ranking political official, let alone ordinary citizen, supposed to conclude about how data could be used against them?
EZ Pass and other electronic toll booth systems should have the option for anonymous use, where money on the devices is treated like cash, for users who prefer privacy to the convenience of having named accounts. A driver, in other words, should be able to buy a transponder for cash, and use cash to store and re-load value on it. The Washington DC Metro system, for example, offers this option for users of its contactless transit passes.
Where identifiable location data is collected, it needs to be subject to very strict protections and controls, including immutable audits that record who is accessing what data, and for what legitimate purpose. Those controls need to cover everyone, right to the top.
New Jersey law does say that "any information obtained from a toll collection monitoring system" shall be available only to Port Authority and police officials "for the purposes of discharging their duties," and "shall not be discoverable as a public record by any person, entity or governmental agency, except upon a subpoena issued by a grand jury or a court order in a criminal matter."
On Monday, New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone called upon the Justice Department to investigate Christie and Baroni's use of the tollbooth data. Given that Gov. Christie may run for the White House, presidential politics will no doubt enter the equation here, but it should be a scandal when any political leader uses personal data as a weapon in this way.
By Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU Legislative Counsel
Last year, the president asked the intelligence community a question: Is it possible to create software that would enable targeted surveillance to act as a substitute for dragnet surveillance? In response, the National Academies released a report which you can read here.
Unsurprisingly, the report found that there is no such "technological magic." In other words, there is no software solution that results in targeted surveillance being an exact substitute for bulk surveillance.
But, it would be a mistake to misinterpret this finding as justification for continuing dragnet surveillance or rejecting reform efforts. Such conclusions both misread the report and ignore the core of the surveillance debate.
One, the National Academies did not find that existing mass surveillance programs have been effective intelligence tools. For example, it does not rebut findings by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, President's Review Group, and others that the domestic nationwide call detail record program has never stopped an act of terrorism or led to the identification of a terrorist suspect. Indeed, the report does not even attempt to provide one concrete example of a case where bulk collection was essential to a national security investigation.
What the report says is that information collected in bulk, and retained indefinitely, could theoretically be of use in a terrorist investigation. But, it doesn't suggest that this theoretical possibility has happened, is likely to happen, or justifies mass surveillance.
Two, the report did not find that the resource costs, privacy impacts, and economic harms associated with bulk collection are balanced by any concrete benefits in intelligence capabilities. In fact, the report emphasizes that the policy and legal arguments that weigh in favor of ending mass surveillance programs are not at conflict with their conclusions.
Finally, the report acknowledges that there are additional steps that the intelligence community can take to increase transparency, improve oversight, and limit the use of information collected through surveillance.
Fundamentally, the surveillance question is about whether our country is willing to trade constitutional liberties for dragnet surveillance programs that have yet to prove their effectiveness.
And, unsurprisingly, there is no software solution to that debate.
By Michaela Wallin, Women's Rights Project, ACLU
In 1999, Tiffani Alvera was violently assaulted by her husband in their Oregon home and had to be hospitalized. After she provided a copy of the restraining order she obtained to her property manager, her landlord ordered her to vacate the apartment within 24 hours. The eviction notice held her responsible for the violence committed against her, stating: "You, someone in your control, or your pet, has seriously threatened to immediately inflict personal injury, or has inflicted personal injury upon the landlord or other tenants." Her landlord refused to remove only her husband from the lease and instead sought to evict the entire household. Ms. Alvera filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ms. Alvera's complaint led to the federal government's first formal finding that the Fair Housing Act protects domestic violence victims from housing discrimination, including evictions based on the abuse committed against them. HUD concluded that penalizing victims for incidents of domestic violence in their homes can amount to sex discrimination because the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women. Ultimately, Ms. Alvera was able to use the law to reform the management company's policies on evicting tenants based on domestic violence.
This concept – that evicting victims of domestic violence because of the abuse they face is not only wrong but illegal – should not be controversial. The courts and the federal government agree, having repeatedly found that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence because of its "disparate impact" on women.
But now, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide a case that will determine the future of this key legal protection. Next week, the court will consider whether the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory effect, regardless of whether they were adopted with the intent to discriminate, in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. the Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.
Without the ability to bring disparate impact claims, many domestic violence survivors will have no recourse when they face the same double victimization as Ms. Alvera: first abuse, then an eviction notice blaming them for the violence in their homes. Even more disturbingly, landlords usually only become aware of the violence after survivors call for help, and so survivors are forced to choose between seeking safety and keeping their homes.
- Quinn Bouley was evicted after her husband physically attacked her in their Vermont home. Ms. Bouley subsequently gave her landlord a copy of the restraining order that identified her husband as the perpetrator and barred him from the home. Nevertheless, days later, the landlord gave the victim, Ms. Bouley, a notice to vacate, stating that the domestic violence violated a provision in the lease forbidding tenants from using or allowing the premises to be used for unlawful purposes.
- Tanica Lewis and her two daughters were the victims of a home invasion when her abusive ex-partner, who had never lived at the residence in Detroit, broke the windows, kicked in her door, and was arrested while she was at work. Ms. Lewis had previously informed her landlord that, pursuant to a protection order, her ex-partner was not to be allowed on the property. Yet, after the break-in, she received a notice of eviction, stating that she had violated her lease by failing to properly supervise her guests.
- Kathy Cleaves-Milan called the police to remove her fiancé, who was threatening to shoot her and himself with a gun, from her home in the Chicago suburbs. Later, although she explained that she was the victim and gave her protective order to the landlord, she was told that "anytime there is a crime in an apartment the household must be evicted." Ms. Cleaves-Milan was subsequently forced to move and charged with a hefty lease termination fee.
All of these women successfully used the Fair Housing Act to fight the discrimination they experienced. This recurring pattern demonstrates how crucial disparate impact is to ensuring equal housing opportunities for women.
Most of the time, landlords that hold victims of abuse responsible for violence perpetrated against them do not say they are making their decisions because they intend to discriminate against women. Yet, as we described in our amicus brief, it is clear that the majority of domestic violence victims are women, and that time and again, the homes and security of female victims of domestic violence are jeopardized because ostensibly neutral housing policies that evict entire households following criminal activity are enforced against them.
The court should preserve this important and long-standing tool to advance fair housing. It empowers survivors to both reach out for safety and support and maintain their homes for themselves and their children.
Business as Usual: House Leadership Uses DHS Spending Bill to Try to Kill President’s Executive Action on Immigration
By Joanne Lin, Washington Legislative Office
There is already a clear picture of the House majority's agenda – block the immigration executive actions announced last November by President Barack Obama.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a spending bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that included a package of amendments seeking to overturn the president's executive actions and to end the existing 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for DREAMers.
The harshest of the amendments include:
- The Aderholt Amendment, introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), prohibits funds or fees to be used for the newly announced Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program and aims to undo the majority of the executive actions announced in November 2014. Repealing the DHS enforcement priorities would amount to a mass deportation strategy that would require DHS to treat all 11 million undocumented people as equal priorities for removal without regard to individualized circumstances.
- The Blackburn Amendment, introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), freezes DACA, forcing hundreds of thousands of DREAMers back into the shadows and underground economy. It could also subject all DREAMers to deportation.
- The DeSantis Amendment, introduced by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), prevents ICE from setting enforcement priorities according to the November 2014 guidelines and could result in the deportation of victims of domestic violence.
The bill would also provide continued funding to maintain 34,000 immigration detention beds. The detention bed quota is completely arbitrary and perpetuates fiscally wasteful and irresponsible spending. Instead of funding immigration detention, Congress should appropriate money for community-based alternatives to detention with case management services, which have been proven to be effective and cost-efficient.
The immigrant community achieved a landmark victory in November. The amendments passed on the House DHS spending bill are aimed at scaring and confusing immigrant communities who stand to benefit from the new deferred action initiatives.
The Senate is expected to take up a DHS spending bill in early February. We urge the Senate to oppose these amendments which attempt to throw immigrant families back into the shadows of deportation.
By Eric Balaban, ACLU National Prison Project
Imagine being charged with a crime, going to trial, being found not guilty by reason of insanity, but remaining behind bars for years. You are denied access to a psychiatrist to treat your serious mental illness; you grow more acutely ill; and you daily face the threat of violence at the hands of other prisoners.
According to a recent report by a federal court appointed psychiatrist, this nightmare is a reality for at least two men at the Criminal Justice Complex, the jail located in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Dr. Kathryn Burns, the chief psychiatrist for the Ohio Department of Corrections, discovered that these men found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) remained locked up at the CJC for years after their criminal verdicts.
And that's against the law.
Federal court orders have been in place for 20 years, requiring the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections to hospitalize acutely and chronically mentally ill CJC prisoners. In fact, Dr. Burns concluded that the government had failed to comply with every mental health provision, over 60 in all, of a settlement agreement it signed a year ago. The settlement agreement includes provisions requiring the government to hospitalize all NGRI patients and those who are acutely ill.
The BOC has flouted these orders and has been found in contempt of court multiple times. But, as Dr. Burns found, these contempt orders have had little to no effect. Despite the fact that these men have been hospitalized and then discharged, they find themselves languishing at the jail without adequate care or any apparent legal basis for continued imprisonment.
Dr. Burns stated she knew of no other correctional system that keeps NGRI patients incarcerated like they are at CJC. In other systems they are hospitalized, so they can receive a level of treatment that simply cannot get at a jail. In St. Thomas, these men remain prisoners, housed in a unit plagued with prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, as overworked and undertrained staff members are overwhelmed by a toxic mix of predatory and acutely ill prisoners.
Mistakes and abuse naturally result.
Dangerous medication disbursement practices are commonplace at CJC, such as prescribing outdated medications and then failing to monitor for side effects. Other issues include the use of physical force and employing steel restraints with extended lockdowns on the mentally ill instead of treatment. Dr. Burns concluded that the overworked detention staff has not received critical training, contributing to dangerous incidents where staff force-fed mentally ill prisoners medications. Dr. Burns found this practice placed patients at risk of asphyxiation and violates all accepted medical standards.
There is, however, an easy solution to the unsafe and abusive conditions at the CJC. If the Virgin Islands government adds beds to the Eldra Shulterbrandt facility, the territory's long-term mental health facility, these men and women will receive the treatment they need. This will result in a smaller and safer jail for both prisoners and staff. It will also end a sad chapter of warehousing men who face no charges, who are not guilty in the eyes of the law, and whose only "crime" is that they are mentally ill.