Over the course of a nearly 3-hour meeting, senators grilled officials from the bureau on a broad array of topics that included overtime, employee morale, inmate and correctional officer security, medical care for inmates, hiring practices, record-keeping and internal investigations. Sen. Celestino White went so far as to criticize the warden of the Golden Grove facility, Tracey Brown, for not having her Virgin Islands driver’s license after being in the territory for nearly a year.
The peppering of the agency began with Bureau of Corrections Director Julius Wilson requesting a 2013 fiscal year budget of $25.8 million, an almost 2 percent budget increase from fiscal year 2012. After reading his testimony, which included mention of 15 major inmate on inmate assaults, one inmate suicide and one assault on a staff member, Chairman Carlton “Ital” Dowe took issue with how things were being handled in the prison system.
“There has to be some serious crackdown on what’s happening,” Dowe said. “There is too much violence inside the institution.”
Wilson countered that the problem wasn’t with the sentenced population but rather with the detention population.
“I don’t care where the violence is coming from,” Dowe fired back. “It’s inside the institution…The violence needs to come to a halt.”
In his testimony, Wilson said offenders today were more aggressive and required a higher level of security and precautions. To that end, he said four months ago the prison system went to a more “lockdown” approach to detention.
Dowe criticized Wilson; first for not having filled the 14 vacant correctional officer positions yet, and second for having spent nearly $2.5 million in overtime costs so far this year when the organization was only budgeted for $799,000.
“This ain’t a picnic, this ain’t no holiday,” Dowe said. “Corrections is serious business.”
Wilson added later that much of the overtime costs were attributed to his staff being called to active military duty.
“A lot of our officers are out and that means it’s a constant overtime post,” Wilson said.
When Sen. White’s turn came around, he seemed concerned with the 137 inmates housed on St. Thomas and the 341 on St. Croix. One hundred and five inmates are housed outside the territory, but White specifically asked for the breakdown of St. Croix’s offenders based on how many were in for murder, rape, gun violence, robbery, burglary and fraud. It was later revealed 43 percent were in for murder, 12 percent for rape, 12 percent for robbery, 26 percent for assault, 3 percent for drugs and narcotics and 4 percent for fraud and other minor crimes.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, a non-committee member, wanted to know what serious efforts were being made to rehabilitate inmates. He called the fact that 65 percent of current inmates were in for more than 25 years “a catastrophe. “ When he discovered it cost $116 per day to house an inmate, he called that “really expensive.”
Wilson said the building of the new chapel at Golden Grove was one program that he saw as making a rehabilitative difference.
“I did not anticipate that much participation from the sentenced inmates, Wilson said. “They’re there. They’ve formed choirs and they’re involved in it. That’s surprised me.”
Wilson added in testimony that the bureau has improved physical facilities on both St. Croix and St. Thomas utilizing local contractors where possible and inmate work crews. To date, they have spent a total of $684,727 on both islands in construction enhancements.
On St. Croix, these facilities include the new education complex at a cost of approximately $500,000 utilizing inmate labor force, the construction of their warehouse and procurement center at a total $400,000 made possible through the American Recovery Reinvestment Act; the chapel at a cost of $25,000 through community contributions and inmate labor and the staff training center at a cost of $70,000.
Cost cutting areas, according to Wilson, include reduction of fuel purchase costs through the reduction in their vehicle fleet, bulk pharmaceuticals purchasing, renegotiated agreements for off-island inmate placements, consolidation of the inmate population, and building the new training center to conduct in-house training which will eliminate the use of contract trainers and space.
Sens. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen and White questioned Brown and Wilson about how Brown was hired, and Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson blasted Basil Richards, chief investigator, over the handling of a missing weapon from the department that was found at a crime scene. Richards said the missing weapon was still under investigation and that everything was being done to figure out what happened.
When things circled around to Sen. Barshinger again, he asked Wilson point blank if the current annual cost of $40,150 to house an inmate could be improved upon.
“The reason I’m concerned is because right now there are hard-working Virgin Islanders who are maybe working a few feet away from us at Kentucky Fried, and I don’t think they’re making $40,000 a year…I don’t understand why if you’re in prison you don’t have to work to make your way.”
“To address that issue, these are sentenced inmates,” Wilson said. “They are not coming in there voluntarily and they have a right to not do certain things. You can make them do certain things, but I don’t think you can force them to produce $40,000 of money. The cheapest I’ve seen is $32 a day.”
“Well $32 is a lot cheaper than $116,” Barshinger said.