ST. THOMAS — A man charged with breaking into a post office on St. Thomas will remain in pretrial detention indefinitely because there is nowhere on the island where he can be safely housed and receive treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.
That conclusion was reached Wednesday during a detention hearing for Allen Springette, 47, who is charged with burglary of a U.S. post office, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
While Springette is innocent until proven guilty, Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Edwards said there’s little doubt that Springette is responsible for the burglary, and the question now is how best to proceed with his detention as he awaits trial.
Springette was arrested on April 17 and easily identified by V.I. Police as the individual captured on surveillance video smashing open a window of the post office about 1:30 a.m., crawling inside, and rifling through parcels before leaving with a package, according to court documents.
He admitted to investigators that he broke into the post office for the purpose of stealing items, and he said he had smoked crack shortly before the burglary, according to court documents. U.S. Postal Inspector Eric Oram also noted that Springette’s fingertips were blackened, which is a sign of crack cocaine use.
Springette had cuts on his body and blood droplets were found inside the post office, and Edwards said the prosecution is confident that DNA evidence definitively will link him to the crime.
A tall man with short, reddish hair and a scruffy beard, Springette is a familiar face on St. Thomas and often lingers around Charlotte Amalie, using one hand to keep his tattered pants from falling down.
He entered court Wednesday morning shackled and dressed in a red Bureau of Corrections jumpsuit, silent and appearing dazed as he shuffled in and took his seat. The chains looped around his waist and wrists clinked as he fidgeted during a sidebar between U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller and attorneys handling the case.
Springette’s federal public defender, attorney Gabriel Villegas, said his client deserves the same benefits afforded to all defendants, regardless of his homelessness and lack of employment.
“It still simply remains a property crime,” Villegas said.
Springette has lived on St. Thomas his entire life, and when V.I. Police officers watched surveillance video from the break-in and recognized him, it didn’t take them long to track him down and bring him in for questioning.
“Police obviously knew where to find him,” Villegas said.
Edwards said that given Springette’s lengthy criminal history of break-ins, most with a similar modus operandi of using a rock to smash open glass doors and windows, he poses a potential danger to the community and must be housed somewhere where he can be monitored closely. She said Springette once was convicted of throwing a rock through a McDonald’s window while a children’s party was taking place inside
“These things can quickly escalate,” Edwards said. “Burglary is a serious offense.”
While judges must consider every case on its own merits and each defendant’s circumstances are unique, defendants with family members willing to serve as third-party custodians frequently are released from pretrial detention and kept under house arrest with various conditions of release.
Some are released on bail, while others — such as former V.I. Sen. Wayne James, who is accused of stealing thousands in taxpayer money for his own private gain and is facing three serious federal criminal charges — are allowed to live with family without having to post bail.
There are also financial implications involved. For example, a custodian must have a land line in their home to facilitate electronic location monitoring, and those who don’t are required to pay to have one installed before their loved one can return home. Family members also post significant amounts of cash or property as surety to guarantee a defendants’ appearance in court.
But Springette is homeless, penniless, has no family or acquaintances capable of serving as a third party custodian, and has a history of substance abuse and mental illness — meaning that he is essentially too poor and ill to be afforded the same pretrial freedom others often receive.
Springette could be released from jail if the V.I. government had a place where he could be safely housed and receive treatment, but it became clear during Wednesday’s hearing that the publicly funded safety net has failed in that regard.
No place for treatment
Miller, Edwards and Villegas agreed that the Virgin Islands simply has no place where individuals like Springette can receive housing and treatment.
Miller ordered that he be detained pending trial, but said she would entertain any other possibilities for his housing and treatment should they arise and ordered the probation office to investigate what mental health and substance abuse treatment options might be available to him.
“It’s a troubling situation,” the judge said.
Edwards agreed that the prosecution also would be willing to figure out a workable solution to Springette’s situation, and Villegas said he would make every effort to find some other arrangement and formulate a plan of action.
“Because that’s really what we need for Mr. Springette.,” he said.
Following the hearing, U.S. marshals led Springette out of the courtroom into the federal courthouse’s open-air atrium, where he gazed up at the sky while shuffling back to jail, ankle shackles clanging.
Given his history, it’s essentially a foregone conclusion that Springette will reoffend in search of food or money, meaning that he’ll likely end up right back in court as he has many times before.
It’s unclear whether he’s received treatment for withdrawal — crack users can experience various symptoms while coming off the drug, including vomiting, insomnia, aches, sweating, depression and anxiety — and the St. Thomas jail is notorious for failing to maintain constitutional standards of confinement.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the V.I. government in 1994 that still is ongoing and resulted in a federal consent decree that local officials will not be released from until they can prove that conditions at the jail do not violate detainees’ human rights.
Among the numerous troubling reports documented in the case over the years are unlocked doors, poorly trained staff and undermanned units, incidents where mentally ill prisoners were left unattended and obtained weapons they used to self-harm or attack others, and tragic deaths by suicide that guards failed to prevent.
No place to go but jail
Berlina Wallace-Berube, director of mental health services for the V.I. Health Department, testified during a status hearing in the case in February that the only inpatient psychiatric treatment facility on St. Thomas is incapable of housing mentally ill prisoners, and no plans have been made to retrofit the facility to house such individuals despite a court-ordered responsibility to do so. Wallace-Berube said the V.I. government owns a piece of land on St. Croix intended for a mental health treatment facility but has appropriated no money to build anything or hire anyone for that purpose.
Schneider Hospital also has repeatedly refused to accept mentally ill patients in acute crisis, therefore, prisoners have been left to languish for years in unconstitutional conditions. Prisoners lack access to adequate mental health treatment and are vulnerable to predation by other prisoners and present a safety threat to guards, according to testimony and court records.
Rather, the government has appropriated millions to pay for the care of mentally ill inmates in facilities off-island.
But that option doesn’t account for individuals like Springette, who must remain in pretrial custody, and it explains why the St. Thomas jail houses so many individuals with serious mental illness.
In a statement from Wallace-Berube provided on April 18, the V.I. Health Department detailed its procedure for mental health treatment of detainees and noted that officials cannot force anyone to receive health care, and mental health treatment must be in compliance with local laws.
Following the arrest of someone exhibiting signs of mental illness, that person would be stabilized at a hospital and a determination made whether they should receive outpatient services or placement in a residential treatment setting. If the latter is found, the department would petition the court for placement.
“If the person is indigent, the court would order the Department of Health to provide residential care. If the person has violent and criminal history, they would be considered for off-island placement because we do not have a forensic facility at this time,” according to the statement.
That means that if, for example, Springette refuses to leave St. Thomas — which he’s called home his entire life — he would be kept in jail because the Health Department has refused court orders to create a forensic facility for mental health treatment.
For those who are deemed eligible for outpatient treatment, Wallace-Berube said the Human Services Department and Health Department should be contacted to address the issues of homelessness, medication management and therapy, and other social service needs.
If they’re returned to the Bureau of Corrections prior to release, “he should be evaluated to determine the correct course of action, as outlined previously, regarding outpatient or residential treatment,” and they would be eligible for department-funded services through Catholic Charities Bethlehem Shelter and the East End Medical Center, according to the statement.
“All services provided by the Department of Health and/or its contractors are dependent on the person being stabilized, since the Department of Health does not provide acute care. The person would also have to be compliant with and willing to receive outpatient care,” Wallace-Berube said in the statement.
The Daily News contacted the Health Department for additional comment regarding detention options available to individuals like Springette, and spokeswoman Nykole Tyson said a response would be forthcoming.
V.I. Human Services Commissioner Felecia Blyden repeatedly has refused to address the issue or respond to questions about the department’s role in cases involving mentally ill and drug addicted detainees.
A spokeswoman for the department initially said she would respond to questions about the matter by April 18, but she later retracted that statement and has not provided any information about what the department is doing to ensure that individuals like Springette receive treatment and the community is kept safe.