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Officers Protest for Better Working Conditions

Sept. 23, 2005—The fight for better working conditions at the Bureau of Corrections continued Thursday, as officers hosted a peaceful protest outside Government House on St. Thomas.
"We really can't take what's going on at the Bureau anymore," Shop Steward Allen Nibbs said. "The lower management down there is running the place into the ground, and they should be fired. The officers are unhappy, the inmates are unhappy, and the community is unhappy—something needs to be done now."
Among other things, Nibbs said the Bureau's lower management team has affected how Acting Attorney General Kerry Drue and Corrections Acting Director Joseph Ponteen have handled the officers' complaints in the past few months.
"The Acting A.G. and Director Ponteen have been really great about listening to us—I could work with them for the next fifty years," Nibbs said. "But they still have to listen to what our lower management says, and they are telling Drue and Ponteen the wrong things."
In particular, Nibbs said that Agnes George, the Bureau's acting assistant director, has been giving Drue and Ponteen wrong information regarding how much officers should be receiving in retroactive pay. "George has not been calculating how much each individual officer is owed in backpay for the past nine months," Nibbs explained.
Instead, Nibbs said, George has given Drue a $1000 across-the-board figure for officers—an unfair practice because each officer puts in a different number of hours on the job. "Therefore, we should all be receiving different paychecks," Nibbs said.
While Nibbs did add some back pay was factored in the officers' Sept. 1 paycheck, there is still much owed to them by the Bureau. "We call this little bit hush money, to keep us from talking to the public about our complaints," Nibbs said.
Nibbs and other corrections officers said obtaining regular government paychecks is also an issue. "The payroll clock has not been working for the last two months," Gwen Lettsome, officer, said. "We just realized it recently. We also realized that any time we've lost due to the clock not working is not being included in our checks."
"We've been crying out for years about our pay," Ralph Francis, corrections officer, said. Francis stated officers only make about $1,200 a month—barely enough to live on.
"And if they're keeping our pay from us, how are we supposed to live at all," Francis questioned. "I've been on the job for sixteen years, and I've hardly ever seen a dime of my money."
But pay isn't the only concern for corrections officers. Also addressed on Thursday were the lower management's in-house promotion practices. "Many of the officers serving in higher ranking positions are not certified to do," Linford Warner, corrections officer, said. "They are supposed to take a promotional test and get certified, but they either failed the test or didn't take it."
Warner specifically named Dale Donovan, the Bureau's acting territorial warden. Not only did Warner say Donovan failed the Lieutenant's Promotional Test, but he has been able to jump around in the Bureau because he is a friend of "the V.I. government."
"That's what's going on—if you're friends with the governor, or the higher officials within the Bureau, you get promoted. If you're not in with them, you stay where you are," Warner said. "I took the test, I passed; but because I wasn't a 'friend,' I didn't get promoted."
Warner said in-house promotions have created a shortage of officers available to work with the inmates. Consequently, those presently at the Bureau work longer hours, and double shifts. When asked if there are any officers training for certification, Warner said there was a class of officers in training, but they have not graduated from the program as yet. "They've been in there for the last ten months," Warner added.
Francis added that he is worried about inmates taking advantage of these conditions. "We're working under high stress all the time because of these conditions. I know the prisoners see that. They may take the opportunity to retaliate against the officers—I know they're affected by these conditions too, and it's made them angry."
The recent death of an inmate, for example, has caused Francis to be a little more careful when he's on the job. While Francis said the government's medical examiners claimed the prisoner died of natural causes, officers know he was stabbed by another inmate.
"Just the other day I gave a prisoner a bowl of oatmeal and a slice of cheese for breakfast," Francis said. "When the cheese runs out, it's a scoop of peanut butter. Can you imagine giving grown men that little bit to eat? I would be angry too, if I were them."
Nibbs added similar conditions exist at St. Croix's Golden Grove prison facility.
"In fact, it got so bad over there, their Bureau's shop steward and assistant shop steward resigned. Their officers are even volunteering to be shipped to Iraq rather than stay and work over there," Nibbs said.
While Gov. Charles W. Turnbull did not witness the protest Thursday, Nibbs said the he and the officers will continue fighting until changes are made. "Governor Turnbull has to respond. He should come down to the jail and see what's going on down there. Maybe then we'll be able to get some results."

Editor's note: In the paragraph where Linford Warner explains that Dale Donovan, acting territorial warden, has been able to "jump around the Bureau" as a result of being "friends with the governor," Warner actually meant that Donovan has been successful in the Bureau because of his connection to acting assistant director Ages George.
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