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Corrections Chief Outlines Prison's Future

May 21, 2009 — Inmates at Golden Grove Correctional Facility will someday churn out Virgin Islands license plates and road signs, if Bureau of Corrections Director Julius Wilson has his way. Wilson and Assistant Director Hilary Herman spoke at Rotary of St. Croix's weekly speaker's luncheon at Gertrude's Restaurant Thursday, outlining their efforts to upgrade the territory's correctional facilities, improve security, staffing and inmate programs, within the bounds of limited available resources.
Wilson sees making license plates, bringing in free and low-cost counseling programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, working with faith-based groups to provide half-way houses and help for prisoners trying to re-enter society as part and parcel to the goals of keeping the prison orderly, safe and secure while giving the many long-term inmates tools to help them cope while in prison and to find work and function after their release.
"Inmates are not going to be inmates forever," Wilson said. Most inmates are high-school dropouts with few work skills and little exposure to arts, culture or literature. Yet reading and writing skills are essential to success in the workplace and offer a kind of escape while still in prison, Wilson said.
"A good book will take you beyond the walls of a prison," he said. "What the library has done for us with the bookmobile visiting has been remarkable. It started as once a week, but the inmates are so enthusiastic, they're begging for twice a week. And we certainly can't afford to buy all those books."
As drug and alcohol dependence is a major factor among prison inmates, Wilson said giving them the tools to find sobriety is a critical part of preparing them to function outside.
"Volunteers from NA and AA have just started coming into Golden Grove, and we certainly appreciate that," he said.
`Work training is important both to help inmates once they get out, but also to keep them busy and out of trouble while they're in prison.
"If a guy is just laying on his rack all day with no program, he doesn’t have a good job, he is not going to meetings, we as a prison are going to suffer," he said. "The entire community, when he comes out, suffers."
"We want to know what skills employers are looking for and train in those areas," he said. Some tried and true work programs could be implemented here too.
"We want to make license plates, we want to make road signs," he said. "That is what prisons do all over the nation. We want it back here. I don't know how yet but we intend to have that conversation."
Asked whether there were any major obstacles standing in the way of lifting the federal consent decrees, Wilson said none were insurmountable.
"It is all manageable but it has to be done over several fiscal years," he said. "We have to manage our resources."
Noting the Bureau of Corrections has been under federal court-ordered consent decrees to improve security and living conditions, Wilson outlined what's being done to fix the longstanding problems.
Of about 523 inmates in the system, about 320 are at Golden Grove on St. Croix, 100 are on St Thomas and about 120 inmates have been sent to facilities in Virginia. Sending a large group of prisoners to Virginia last year has freed up space, improving security and living conditions, while also allowing the Bureau of Corrections a chance to renovate cells to house 150 inmates, he said.
Once the renovations are done, many but not all of the prisoners being housed on the mainland will return. Herman and Hilary ultimately want most of the prisoners to return to the territory, to reduce the hardship upon family members of the inmates. But some will not come back because they are troublemakers or have special needs, and some may not come back as the police department has been arresting more violent criminals, filling up the beds, Herman said.
"Base on past trends, we can take whatever comes in," Herman said. "But as we get more arrests and convictions, leading to more inmates, that slows the efforts to get people back from Virginia."

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