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In April 2002, Jonathan Ramos was arrested in the U.S. Virgin Islands for taking a bike from a Wal-Mart and riding away. He's been in jail since, even though the charges were dropped a year ago. That's because Ramos is seriously mentally ill. And prison is the only place the government in the U.S. Virgin Islands sees fit to keep him.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS: Ah, December in St. Thomas.

(Soundbite of song, "Feliz Navidad")

LEWIS: The red tinsel trees around town are sparkling. Government workers answer the phones: Happy Holidays. Even the wind at this time of year is called the Christmas breeze. Walk along the crystal harbor of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and you'll find people who want to spend Christmas here and the rest of their lives. Like Andre Tanis(ph). He grew in Haiti.

Mr. ANDRE TANIS (Resident, U.S. Virgin Islands): Would you like to get one now, sir?

LEWIS: He sells his caps and T-shirts to tourists from the open-air market here by the harbor.

Mr. TANIS: I like St. Thomas. Me, I feel good here. I got everything here. I work here. I don't have no problem, but I like it. I like to stay here. That's all.

LEWIS: But what if you were trapped here with no way out? That's the life of Jonathan Ramos. He got locked up for riding off on a bike from the Wal-Mart here back in 2002. But the government dropped those charges a while ago. Ramos is really locked up for being seriously mentally ill. He has chronic schizophrenia. He was a sweet boy, a math wizard whose teachers here still ask about him. He used to tool around on his bike, and he doted on his papa like a puppy. And his father doted on him.

Ms. ANGELA RAMOS-MICHAEL (Jonathan Ramos' Sister): Jonathan was like his eyes. I mean, he loved his child so much.

LEWIS: Angela Ramos-Michael is Jonathan Ramos' sister.

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: He would always say - he had some property. And he said that he could see - he could actually visualized Jonathan working - managing his business.

LEWIS: His papa died nine years ago, and Jonathan Ramos has been in and out of institutions since then. He's what you call a danger to himself and to his family, and to anyone who gets close to him. He's attacked a caretaker and most of his family members. The government says it has nowhere else to put him - so he has sat in a jail cell for five years. Jonathan Ramos is not the only one.

Right now, five other people are in prison in the U.S. Virgin Islands, instead of a psychiatric hospital. They've been found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity. The people who should know - the experts - say they know of no other place where seriously mentally ill people are imprisoned indefinitely because they are mentally ill.

Mr. RAY PATTERSON (Prison Psychiatric Expert): That's an antiquated practice that went out in 1800s.

LEWIS: Ray Patterson is a prison psychiatric expert. He says it's an outrage that people protected by the U.S. Constitution are dealt with this way. And residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands have that protection. So why are Jonathan Ramos and the other men locked up this way?

Here's the thing: A federal judge has found the government in contempt of court for using prisons to house mentally ill people tied up with the criminal justice system and for failing to make the fix. He's done that four times in the past 10 years. But in all that time, little has changed.

Mr. ERIC BALABAN (Lawyer, American Civil Liberties Union): We have, today, essentially the same health care system that we had a dozen years ago.

LEWIS: Eric Balaban is a lawyer for Jonathan Ramos and the five other mentally ill men in prison. He's with the ACLU. In all those years, the judge has never used a hammer to force the government to act - no fines, no penalties, no jail time. For instance, the judge ordered the government to move Ramos and four other men out of the jail and prison to a hospital that could treat them; he ordered that two years ago. Balaban wants the judge to fine the government for stalling.

Vincent Frazer is attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He says the islands don't have a forensic hospital for seriously mentally ill people like Jonathan Ramos. He says the government is working on getting one.

Attorney General VINCENT FRAZER (U.S. Virgin Islands): We recognize that there have been lapses and misunderstanding as to the responsibilities, and that having these people placed in a jail setting or prison setting is not what is statutorily mandated in the Virgin Islands and is not good for their treatment.

LEWIS: Frazer says the government has tried to find a place for Ramos and the others at hospitals in Puerto Rico and stateside. But so far, they haven't succeeded. And the costs of paying for good treatment, of course, are enormous.

Even so, at the latest hearing, the judge, U.S. District Judge Stanly Brotman, told the government, if you don't fix the problem once and for all, I will. He said the time for leeway is over. And then the umpteenth hearing in this case ended, with Ramos and the others still locked up in prison.

The next day, Jonathan Ramos sits down across from me in the visitors' room at the St. Thomas jail. He looks unremarkable - one face among thousands of young black men in prison - until you look into his eyes and you keep looking into them. They're like the weather changing. They go from clear to foggy, to dark and raw, to soft and then clear again. His smile is like lightning. It's a bright flash out of nowhere and utterly random. He's 23 years old. He's been here since he was 18 years old. Out of nowhere, he says to me, strong. Are you strong? The corrections officer asks afterwards, did he speak to you? Ramos has all but stopped speaking.

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: How are you doing?

LEWIS: Good. How are you?

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: I'm fine. Come right in.

LEWIS: Walk into Angela Ramos-Michael's home out in the countryside and step through the sliding screen door to the back.

(Soundbite of door sliding)

LEWIS: Before you are the mountains, the sky, and the sea. Ramos-Michael says she tries not to think too much about her brother locked away. She would rather think about him when he was little, before he became someone who could - and would - hurt her. The only photos she has of him now are when he was four.

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: Look at him here. Look at Jonathan, and he was so sweet. I have more pictures of him now, at the time. I used to, like, to dance. See him dancing there?

LEWIS: After their father died, she spent tens of thousands of dollars from his estate to get Jonathan help. She placed him at a private psychiatric hospital for teenagers at $11,000 a month. He was there for eight months until the money ran out. He wound up a ward of the state until he turned 18. Then they set him free. He lived on the streets of St. Thomas until the day he hopped on that bike at the Wal-Mart and the police picked him up and put him in the St. Thomas jail.

Angela Ramos-Michael feels responsible for her brother. She can't take care of him anymore. She says the folks at the jail are good to him, but they can't take care of him, either - the way that he needs.

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: It's like he's being wasted away. My brother is being wasted.

LEWIS: Now, she says, he no longer recognizes her.

Ms. RAMOS-MICHAEL: I talk about papa. Normally when we talk about papa in the past, there would be some sort of response. Maybe he laughs, you know, some kind of body language to show me that okay, papa. Yes, papa. Now there's nothing.

LEWIS: But she believes that her brother is still in there somewhere beneath the schizophrenia. What he need, she says, is serious help to get free.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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