Home News Local news 'Hell Going On in There': Senate Committee Calls for Drastic Changes in Corrections Bureau

'Hell Going On in There': Senate Committee Calls for Drastic Changes in Corrections Bureau

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Jan. 16, 2008 — Described by some government officials as a "powder keg" or "pressure cooker ready to explode," the territory's Bureau of Corrections (BOC) has been wracked with a number of issues over the years — including low funding, low pay and a critical lack of employees. After more than six hours of debate Wednesday, senators decided the best way to eliminate some of the problems is to sever the agency from the Department of Justice.
Gathered in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas, members of the Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice explored the pros and cons of implementing such an action, taking testimony from Justice officials, BOC officers and an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) National Prison Project. While the hearing was, for the most part, consumed in a tangle of accusations, heated debate and insults, a general consensus wove its way through the rabble: Any way you put it, most testifiers said, the bureau is in need of a structural reorganization that would help to mend the rift between management and labor and improve conditions in the territory's prisons.
Still, transitioning the bureau into a separate government entity isn't as easy as it sounds, said Attorney General Vincent Frazer, who suggested that the shift from the Department of Justice be implemented at the end of two fiscal years. Within that time frame, Justice officials could take serious measures to right the wrongs within Corrections — starting off with the negotiation of a collective-bargaining agreement that could help to alleviate some of the mounting tension between officers and supervisors. The government is set to pick up negotiations next week, and will seek to address such sticking points as raising the $24,500 a year base pay for officers, Frazer said.
The next step, he added, is setting up a meeting between the rank and file and BOC leadership. For the past few years, Corrections officers on St. Thomas have protested working conditions at the Criminal Justice Complex (CJC) and have complained about issues ranging from problems with promotional exams to a lack of equipment. On Wednesday, Officer Linford Warner and BOC shop steward Allen J. Nibbs spoke of confrontations with CJC Warden Agnes George and Assistant Warden Dale Donovan, and provided senators with documents describing each incident, along with numerous letters from union leaders, government employees and fellow corrections officers, laying out a stack of violations against Corrections' managers.
"I can see that I'm making some of you uncomfortable," Warner said to senators. "It's okay — I get uncomfortable, too, when I'm threatened. But I've been working in the bureau of 19 years, and I can tell you, we got hell going on in there."
Consent Decrees and Prison Conditions
Representing the ACLU's National Prison Project, attorney Eric Balaban laid all his cards on the table for senators, saying that the "lack of leadership within the BOC has created and fostered a culture of neglect within the Bureau."
He continued, "As a result, seriously ill Virgin Islands prisoners have unnecessarily suffered at BOC facilities, conditions are hazardous, the facilities are understaffed, the staff is under-trained and the lives and safety of those who live and work at BOC facilities are at constant risk."
The ACLU's class-action lawsuit against the V.I. government, filed in 1994, details in depth widespread rights' abuses in the Criminal Justice Complex, including charges that range from poor sanitary conditions to the abuse of mentally ill inmates. After ruling in favor of the organization, U.S. District Judge Stanley Brotman has since found the territory in contempt of court four times for failing to improve conditions.
Most recently, the ACLU has asked the court to fine the territory's top government officials for not complying with orders to transfer mentally ill inmates to a psychiatric hospital, and is calling on Brotman to appoint a receiver to rebuild the correctional health-care system.
Speaking earlier in the meeting, Frazer was just as candid, saying that efforts to comply with Brotman's court orders and meet provisions in the consent decree between the local and U.S. Justice departments must be stepped up before the bureau begins to operate on its own. However, it's going to cost the government millions of dollars to satisfy some of the demands, he added.
"Within the next four months, we are under court order to retain an independent organization to provide medical, dental and mental health services to the population at Golden Grove," Frazer explained. "To do this, we must solicit competitive bids on a very fast track. We are presently reviewing the scope of services and expect to begin the solicitation process within 30 days. It has been suggested that we should be prepared to spend $6 million to $10 million annually for this service. Senators, this is an expenditure that we must be prepared to bear in four months."
The government has also contracted off-island facilities to provide beds for the territory's population of mentally ill inmates, Frazer said. While Balaban contended that the government had never discussed such plans with the ACLU, Frazer said that any such arrangement would cost the government $21,000 to $36,000 a month per inmate — an expense that will begin eating into BOC's budget as early as next month.
Tens of millions of dollars are also needed to address security problems at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix, Frazer said, telling senators that banned items — such as drugs, weapons and cell phones — are frequently found in the prison despite "all attempts to keep them out."
Considering all the factors, Frazer said an independent BOC would have to be fully and continuously funded, or be doomed to suffer the same problems currently plaguing the system. And, in order to move ahead, he added, officers and management would have to give up some of the "old baggage" that they've "been carrying around for years."
"I care about Corrections," Frazer said. "I think the agency has gotten a lot of attention from me, and will continue to get that attention, because the way I see it, the problems are fixable. It takes work at all levels. But a lot of the tension that exists is personal, and have come about from years of conflicts that have never been resolved. It's time for us to sit down and resolve them — we don’t have to like each other, but we have to respect each other when we come on the job."
While Frazer explained during the meeting that he is not able to fire managers such as George and Donovan because they currently hold classified positions within government, he did say after the meeting that he will make "certain staffing changes" over the next few months, including the appointment of a new prisons' director — a position left vacant by the recent resignation of Elwood S. York.
A New Bureau of Corrections
After considering all the testimony, senators did not hesitate to unanimously approve the bill separating Corrections from the Justice Department. It is time, they said, to try something new, instead of listening "year after year" to longstanding, unresolved issues and complaints.
"After hearing the cries and pleas of the officers here today, it's not hard to see that this bill is badly needed," said Sen. Alvin L. Williams, the bill's sponsor. "It's not a panacea — it's not going to solve all of the problems that are going to take millions of dollars to fix. But it will give us an organizational structure, a director who will have the buck stop at his desk, who can make recommendations to the governor, instead of having everything get lost in the bureaucracy."
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. challenged Frazer.
"B
efore your confirmation, there was a general dissatisfaction from senators about how the shop was being run," White said. "Since then, nothing has changed — in fact, it has gotten increasingly worse. You being the chief prosecutor and chief jailer, I don't think it's the best setup. It's time for something else."
If the bill is signed into law, the governor will be in charge of appointing the director of the new Bureau of Corrections. That individual, in turn, would be responsible for picking his staff, while the governor would also be tasked with hiring and firing prison wardens, along with "any such assistants or division directors as the governor considers necessary for the proper administration of the bureau."
An amendment tacked onto the bill at the end of Wednesday's meeting makes the transfer effective Oct. 1, 2009, giving Frazer some time to deal with the consent decrees, work on the personnel issues and assist with the creation of rules and regulations for the new entity. Senators added that the attorney general should also look into stepping up the number of officers at BOC, giving the existing rank and file a break from 16-hour days.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm comfortable with what's been said by the testifiers," said Sen. Carmen M. Wesselhoft, committee chairwoman. "Something has to happen soon, or else there's either going to be a shootout in the prisons or you're going to have the inmates taking care of themselves, because you'll have no more officers working for you."
Describing Wednesday's meeting as "troubling," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson added that Frazer should show "more compassion" for the employees within the prison system.
"Stop slaving your men," Nelson said, amidst loud shouts, cheers and applause from the large group of BOC officers sitting in the audience. "Do what you have to do — what did Malcolm X say? — by any means necessary."
Present on Wednesday were Davis, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, Wesselhoft, White and Williams. Sen. Ronald E. Russell was absent at voting time.
Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe was absent.
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