Undercurrents: V.I. Prisoners Held in Controversial Facility

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

National justice watchdogs are highly critical of the stateside prison system now housing most of the territory’s inmates, charging that a lack of security makes the facilities dangerous both for guards and inmates and that poor working conditions encourage the mistreatment of prisoners.

Groups such as “Grassroots Leadership” and “The Sentencing Project” have detailed accounts of delayed treatment for sick or injured inmates, beatings by guards and disregard for staff safety.

V.I. Bureau of Corrections Director Rick Mullgrav disputes that unflattering characterization.  In an interview Monday evening, he said he has visited the facilities and found them “very clean” and well equipped with educational opportunities for inmates.

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For decades the territory has sent some of its prisoners to stateside jails.  In some cases it was because Corrections could not provide for an inmate’s special health needs or because he needed to be separated from other inmates at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix. 

At other times, it was to alleviate overcrowding.  In recent years, there have been several large-group transfers.

When Gov. Kenneth Mapp came into office, he proposed transferring prisoners for another reason: to save money.

At a joint press conference March 8, Mapp and Mullgrav announced the just-completed transfer of 105 Golden Grove male inmates, 67 to Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz., and 38 to a prison in Citrus County, Fla.  Both are privately owned, for-profit facilities, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.

The governor said at the press conference that the cost of housing an inmate on-island was $150 a day, whereas the cost stateside would range between $67 and $82 per day.

The move essentially emptied Golden Grove.   There are now 257 Virgin Islanders in stateside prisons.  Only 52 inmates remain on St. Croix and they are staying, according to Mullgrav, because they are “workers” employed by Corrections or performing jobs in the community as part of the work release program.

Detainees, those awaiting trial and/or sentencing, are housed on St. Thomas.

In the past, inmates with less than two years left on their sentences were not generally included in mass transfers.  This time, Mullgrav acknowledged, the time limit did not apply. He said there were “several reasons” for that and referenced overcrowding and security concerns.

He said Corrections was not directly involved in determining which men went to Florida and which to Arizona.  The decision was left to CCA and was basically just a matter of numbers that could be accommodated at each facility.

The Virgin Islands has housed prisoners at Citrus County in the past, but this is the first time it has sent them to Saguaro in Arizona.  Mullgrav said he was familiar with Citrus County, having visited it previously, and he went to Saguaro at the time of the transfer “to make sure the transition went smoothly.”

The V.I. prisoners were housed together in a “separate section” of the facility. “They weren’t integrated with any other group,” Mullgrav said. The idea is to help ease them into the change in their surroundings.

Saguaro has been singled out by CCA critics as one of the corporation’s more problem-plagued facilities.

Corrections Corporation of America

The concept of the privatization of prisons is as old as history, but the idea took hold in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century and debate has been raging ever since.

Proponents say turning corrections systems into business makes for more efficiently run facilities and saves taxpayers money.

Opponents say it encourages higher incarceration rates, the exploitation of workers, and cutting expenses for such things as health care and education for inmates.

In a 2012 report titled “Too Good to be True, Private Prisons in America,” The Sentencing Project summarizes relatively recent developments in the United States: the War on Drugs brought harsher sentences and increased numbers of convicts in the 1970s and ’80s; private companies began half-way houses to transition nonviolent offenders; businesses contracted with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to house undocumented immigrants; and then Corporate America got into the incarceration business big time.

A 2013 report “The Dirty 30” by Grassroots Leadership traces the first 30 years of CCA.  It was founded in 1983 by venture capitalist Jack Massey (who helped finance Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Hospital Corporation of America) along with Tom Beasley, the former head of the Republican Party in Tennessee, Doctor Crants, a Nashville lawyer and businessman, and T. Don Hutto, a state prison director.

CCA started with a single facility in Tennessee, according to The Sentencing Project, and by 2012 it was operating 66 facilities housing more than 75,000 inmates; it had grown into the largest private organization offering corrections services to the federal and to state governments.

But it was not the only one. A close second is GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) and there are others.

Critics say the growth of the private corrections industry is due in part to lobbying efforts by private companies – efforts not only to convince federal agencies and state governments to move inmates to private facilities, but also to convince lawmakers to increase criminal penalties, thus growing the base clientele.

From 1999 to 2010, The Sentencing Project report states, the number of prisoners nationwide increased by 18 percent.  The number housed in private rather than public institutions grew by 80 percent.

To keep costs down, CCA and other private firms hire nonunion labor and pay them less than most would make at a public corrections facility.  The average new recruit at a private facility comes on board earning $5,327 less than his public sector counterpart, according to The Sentencing Project. The disparity continues to increase until, at maximum salary levels, it is $14,901.

“Consequently there are higher employee turnover rates in private prisons than in publically operated facilities,” the report states.

Industry statistics from 2000 reported by Grassroots Leadership show the average employee turnover rate for public prisons was 15 percent compared with 53 percent for private prisons.

Not only is the pay unattractive, according to the watchdog groups, but also the training is insufficient. 

Cutting corners leads to pressured staff and escalates tension between employees and inmates, leading to a number of escapes and violence within prisons, critics say. 

Among the multitude of incidents cited by CCA critics are:

–                 The ACLU filed a civil rights action against CCA’s Idaho Correctional Center, citing 23 prison assaults and such a “culture of violence” that inmates had nicknamed the facility “Gladiator School.”

–                 The CAA facility at Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky had four times the level of sexual abuse as its state-run counterpart, according to a 2007 report.

–                 In July 2010, an employee at Saguaro was attacked by prisoners in a gang brawl.

–                 The Inspector General for the state of California, which housed prisoners at three different CCA facilities, found serious security flaws, improper treatment of prisoners and a failure to check the records of employees or to screen out those with gang affiliations.

–                 In 2010, 18 Saguaro inmates sued the establishment, alleging they were stripped, beaten and forced to stand in the cold by guards trying to make them inform on fellow prisoners involved in a gang fight.

–                 Several prison murders over recent years at Saguaro drew widespread media attention and helped convince Hawaii officials to begin withdrawing inmates from the facility, which was originally opened to accommodate prisoners from Hawaii.

Supporters of CCA and of private corrections facilities argue that all prisons have incidents; it’s the nature of the business. 

Mullgrav indicated he has confidence in the territory’s placements. He voiced no concerns about Saguaro or other stateside facilities housing V.I. prisoners. 

Noting that Corrections has housed prisoners stateside for many years, he said the bureau has not received complaints from Virgin Islands prisoners incarcerated in private corrections institutions.

The facilities have a number of enrichment programs for inmates, he said.  Those include a GED program and classrooms and equipment for training in woodworking, plumbing, carpentry and electrical work.

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