Bureau of Corrections employees came out on top Thursday after Chief District Court Judge Wilma Lewis mandated raises and guaranteed anonymity from federal monitors during staff meetings at a settlement hearing.
The Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix has been under a federal consent decree since 1986 with orders to bring the prison up to constitutional standards.Recent compliance orders in 2003 included measures to insure prisoner health and staff safety.
Settlement hearings occur every several months where attorneys from the federal and local governments discuss prison improvements and compliance. Low salaries and employee retention have been concerns by local and national stakeholders for years.
At Thursday’s hearing, Lewis chastised the V.I. government for stalling with U.S. directives to institute a staffing plan that addresses low salaries, even after U.S. Attorney Marlyssa Myrtle pointed out that salaries are crucial to insure the ability to hire adequate and qualified staff for prisoner and employee safety.
Representing the V.I. government, Assistant Attorney General Shari D’Andrade listed steps being taken to increase the quality and quantity of staffing at Golden Grove. The new procedures include requiring a three-year commitment from cadets, funding to help employees relocate, job fairs, streamlining the hiring process and revising the examination.
D’Andrade did not explain why salaries are not part of the staffing plan but Joseph Ponteen, V.I. chief deputy attorney general, said they could not speak for the governor or Legislature about salary increases.
Lewis repeatedly questioned the attorneys for justification for leaving salary increases off the table and eventually said she had not heard anything that convinced her it was justified.
“It is unimaginable how a staffing plan doesn’t address officer pay,” she said, pointing out that over the years, the primary problem with staffing at Golden Grove is the low pay.
The lack of pay parity between the Bureau of Corrections and police officers has resulted in applicants being “syphoned off” by higher salaries at the V.I. Police Department, Lewis said.
Currently the starting salary for a correctional officer is $24,000, an amount Gov. Kenneth Mapp has agreed is insufficient, according to Ponteen.
The result of the “parity of pay” discussion was agreement by Ponteen and the federal monitors to craft a written advocacy agreement calling for salary increases at Golden Grove.
Ponteen promised to work with the executive and legislative branches and the Office of Management and Budget to finalize salary increases.
“By April 7, we’ll be able to say when money will be in the pocketbooks of correctional officers,” he said.
Lewis also ruled in favor of Corrections employees by denying federal monitors access to staff meeting minutes.
Kenneth Ray, chief federal monitor, said he needed minutes to determine if Corrections staff is complying with new policies and to build his records. Site visits are usually three days and not enough time to gather sufficient accurate information, he said.
Defending the request, Myrtle said staff has been instructed, on occasion, to “be careful or filter information for the monitor.”
D’Andrade denied the allegation and said the U.S. monitors have “access to pretty much everything,” including the prison and its offices, logs and other documents, as requested. She said they would not be opposed to supplying meeting minutes or reports with names redacted.
Lewis said the request was “overly broad based,” and denied it as such, but said the U.S. team could write a more “tailored” request that supports a need for documents to monitor progress towards compliance with the consent decree.
The recent transfer of Golden Grove prisoners was also discussed at Thursday’s settlement hearing.
Mapp and Bureau of Corrections Director Rick Mulgrav recently transferred 105 inmates to stateside facilities for financial reasons and to facilitate remodeling at the prison. According to Mapp, the cost of housing an inmate on St. Croix is $150 per day versus $67 to $82 a day in stateside facilities.
Federal monitors questioned whether policies and procedures were followed to insure the health and safety of the inmates.
Lewis pointed out it would be difficult to manage procedures at the other facilities and ruled that the U.S. monitors may file a brief about their concerns by the end of the month. If they do, the attorneys for the territory should respond by April 14 with Lewis’s ruling after April 21.
Other items discussed at the hearing included security and contraband policies and procedures and training for medical and mental health workers.