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Prison Guards Defend Ponteen, Petition for Reinstatement

Feb. 27, 2006 – Prison guards rallied behind Joseph Ponteen, former Corrections Bureau director, on Monday, collecting signatures on a petition demanding the controversial leader be reinstated.
Ponteen, acting Corrections chief since early 2005, was demoted last week by Attorney General Kerry Drue, who said Ponteen "repeatedly failed to implement easily attainable improvements" at the Golden Grove prison.
More than 30 prison guards signed a petition disputing Drue's assessment of Ponteen, saying he was demoted because he disagreed with Drue.
Ponteen contradicted Drue during a federal hearing in which the U.S . Justice Department sought the appointment of a monitor to oversee improvements at the Golden Grove prison.
Drue told the court that conditions at the 600-inmate facility were not bad enough to merit having a monitor, but Ponteen said the prison's problems were "a nightmare" and he welcomed federal help.
Ponteen "was removed from his position as Director of the Bureau of Corrections because he would not conform to the lies being perpetrated by Attorney General Kerry Drue and her administration," wrote Russell Newton, a corrections officer union leader, in the petition.
Senator Terrence Nelson said he had spoken with Drue, who assured him that Ponteen was demoted for failing to follow directions and various other failures.
Nelson said, however, the territory's whistle-blower law would protect Ponteen if he was demoted for pointing out systemic problems within the bureau.
"This may have something to do with his testimony in the court case," Nelson said.
Newton was adamant in the petition that Ponteen was pushing the bureau in a new, better direction.
"He was a breath of fresh air to the concept of honesty, fairness and inclusion in an environment where lies and cover-up is the standard," Newton wrote.
Newton agreed with Ponteen's statements that the territory's prison and two jails were understaffed, under-funded and unsafe.
"Currently Golden Grove is understaffed and operating at a dangerous level of safety for staff and inmates," the petition said. "Officers are confronted with verbal and physical abuses, deplorable working conditions, fighting among inmates, shanks, health risks, unprofessional and ineffective staff."
Drue had not seen the petition and could not comment late Monday, said Judy Gomez, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Ponteen did not returned phone calls seeking comment.
The court was expected to rule on the Justice Department's request next month. The monitor could impose fines if the government does not correct safety, security and healthcare problems at the prison – as it had been required to do under a 1986 agreement with the U.S.

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