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Undercurrents: Where Angels Fear to Tread

Undercurrents, a regular Source feature, slips below the surface of the Virgin Islands’ daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.

No one really likes to talk about it. Certainly most of us don’t want to go there. But the V.I. prison system is home to about 600 people. Each one comes with a family. They are brothers/sisters, parents, cousins, uncles/aunts to literally thousands of other V.I. residents.

What happens once the door locks between a prisoner and all the rest of us?

A recent spate of stabbings at Golden Grove Correctional Institute illustrates why the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections is still operating under federal consent decrees imposed on the territory in 1986 and 1994 in attempts to force it to improve prison conditions.

But that’s only part of the story. There are also a number of good things happening in our prisons, and some success stories. Periodically over the coming weeks, with the help of various prison officials, Undercurrents will attempt to throw a little light across the shadows.

Obviously, the number of people who are incarcerated varies from day to day as prisoners are released and as new people come into the system. The most recent statics available from the Bureau of Corrections are from March 2011. At that time, there were 589 people incarcerated in the territory. Of those, 379 were convicted inmates and 201 were detainees, that is, people awaiting the disposition of their criminal cases. Another nine people are listed as “forensic,” meaning inmates being housed for psychiatric care.

The prison population by age and by race, according to the statistics, was:

12 percent: 18-24 years old
36 percent: 25-34
35 percent: 35-49
15 percent: 50-64
2 percent: 65+
(.1% under 18)

54 percent black
40 percent Hispanic
5 percent white
1 percent other

The majority of prisoners are kept at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix which is for long-term incarceration. Generally less than one- fourth are on St. Thomas which has two facilities: the third floor of the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex in downtown Charlotte Amalie, primarily for detainees, and the Alva A. Swan Correctional Annex in Sub Base which is for convicted inmates, but primarily those with sentences of a year or less.

The 2011 figures were not categorized by gender, but the female population is generally very small. According to information from Juel Anderson, public relations officer for BOC, and St. Thomas Acting Warden Gilbert David, there were only six women incarcerated in March of this year.

On St. Thomas, David estimated that about 30 percent of prisoners have been there before, including both detainees and convicted inmates. “They go out. They stay out about three weeks, a month. They’re back,” he said.

David has been with BOC for 22 years. “I came to this job at 23,” he said, having applied for an entry level position. He got a call telling him to report to work “the day after (Hurricane) Hugo” hit the territory in September of 1989. He worked his way up to assistant warden and was recently made the acting warden.

He said his biggest challenge is dealing with the consent decree. “Half the stuff in the consent decree is architecturally driven,” he said. The annex is certainly a big improvement over the 17th century Fort Christian which the territory was still using as a jail at the beginning of the 1980s.

But David said, “I don’t think it was thought out.” The annex was built to house up to 97 people, he said, but “it has held as much as 260 guys.” It has no single-person accommodations; “all our cells are double cells.” And while “it was set up for short-timers” because of overcrowding at Golden Grove, “we house some long-termers” – a dozen of them at the time of this interview.

Like other BOC officials, David would like to see a new or expanded prison on St. Thomas. “A 250-bed facility could cover it,” he said. But the estimated cost of that is $4 million and with a cash-strapped government and a struggling economy, those funds aren’t likely to materialize any time soon.

Meanwhile, BOC does what it can with the existing facilities.

When a person comes into the system, he has three interviews, the first with a corrections officer, the next with a classification officer and the third with a social worker. “They happen in the span of 72 hours,” David said.

The bureau needs to know the new inmate’s medical condition, any medications he takes and any special health needs he may have. It conducts basic medical testing and lab work as necessary. The classification officer determines where the inmate should be housed – obviously not with others if he has a contagious disease – and the social worker determines any special needs.

BOC built a dental facility at the annex and contracted with a dentist to provide regular care for inmates, David said. It also provides regular mental health services and counseling from case managers and social workers.

For those who qualify, BOC also offers opportunities for education and for work.

For both programs – and overriding everything – “Security’s our No. 1 priority,” David said. An inmate doesn’t get on work release if he is considered a flight risk. He doesn’t get into a GED program to study for a high school diploma equivalency exam if he can’t get along with other prisoners in the class.

Next: a look at education opportunities in prison.

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