Two Virgin Islanders suffering from chronic mental illness and homelessness may soon be back on the streets after a judge said he cannot order them to stay in jail forever.
Glasford Smith, 56, of St. Thomas, and Charisma Turnbull, 31, of St. John, are both awaiting trial on assault charges .
Smith and Turnbull appeared in V.I. Superior Court on Friday for arraignment in their separate criminal cases, where Territorial Public Defender Frederick Johnson and Assistant V.I. Attorney General Brenda Scales discussed the court’s limited options.
The territory’s Health Department and Bureau of Corrections have struggled to keep mental health professionals on staff, and Magistrate Judge Henry Carr III said he saw jail psychiatrist Dr. Leighman Lu in the parking lot Thursday with files tucked under his arm.
Lu has been trying to retire for months, and “I took that to mean somebody begged him and pleaded with him to continue providing services until they could find someone else,” Carr said. “They need to offer more money.”
In regards to Smith, who was arrested after swinging a shovel at police officers at the Schneider Hospital safari stop, “I just don’t want him to sit in jail and nothing to happen,” Carr said.
The Eldra Schulterbrandt residential treatment facility on St. Thomas has been reluctant to accept patients charged with crimes, but Carr urged Johnson to try and get Smith a bed there anyway.
“If you reach a brick wall, please let the court know. Because Attorney Scales, I’m going to release him,” Carr said. “Just having him in the jail since Jan. 7 for simple assault and disturbing the peace, about a month and a half later, that don’t sit right with me.”
The territory does not have a secure inpatient treatment facility and judges are often forced to dismiss cases and release individuals back to the streets — sometimes after spending more time behind bars than they would have if they’d been convicted and served the maximum possible sentence.
Even if Smith were to be released, Johnson said he’s stuck in a “revolving door” because his untreated mental illness will inevitably cause him to act out again, “and the police are going to keep bringing him back and he’ll be charged.”
Carr continued Smith’s case and turned his attention to Turnbull, who has been in jail since her latest arrest on Jan. 31 for simple assault and destruction of property. A business owner in Cruz Bay told police Turnbull assaulted her after she asked her to get off the ground and move away from the entrance to the store, and it was the second time since July that Turnbull has been arrested after such an encounter.
Despite their best efforts, Johnson said the public defender’s office has been unable to find any family members willing to take Turnbull in and serve as her third-party custodian while she awaits trial.
“This is not necessarily the responsibility of the government of the V.I. at all times. I really don’t want her to be in jail, but she needs some help. And she cannot be lying on the ground in front of people’s businesses over there in St. John. But I can’t in good conscience just simply allow her to remain in jail,” Carr said. “I don’t want her in the Bureau of Corrections but I’m so afraid if I allow her out, she will not go to a doctor and receive the appropriate medication so that she can be lucid and has an awareness of her presence and where she should be and where she should not be.”
Carr asked Johnson to “redouble your efforts” to find a third-party custodian, and suggested Turnbull might be another candidate for Schulterbrandt.
The facility has only 32 beds — 16 for men and 16 for women — which are typically filled with chronically ill seniors in need of care.
Ruth Warren, mental health coordinator for the Bureau of Corrections, testified at a court hearing in 2018 that in her more than eight years working at the jail, she’d been successful in transferring only two detainees to Schulterbrandt for inpatient mental health treatment, a fraction of those she said should have been admitted by the Health Department.
“I’ve got a bunch of people I think would be appropriate candidates, but it’s sometimes hard to get someone at Schulterbrandt to call us back,” Johnson said. “I’ve got two or three other clients on the top of my head that would benefit from Schulterbrandt, I think.”
“I’m afraid that sooner or later I must release her,” Carr said.
“I hope you don’t do that, your honor,” said the victim in the case.
“I can’t keep her in jail forever,” Carr said. “Jail can’t be a warehouse for mentally ill persons.”