New Warden: Procedures Can Improve St. Thomas Jail

Warden Ishmael Smittie is establishing procedures for operating the St. Thomas Criminal Justice Complex. (Submitted photo)
Warden Ishmael Smittie is establishing procedures for operating the St. Thomas Criminal Justice Complex. (Submitted photo)

Top officials at the Bureau of Corrections have high hopes for the newly appointed warden of the St. Thomas Criminal Justice Complex.

At a recent hearing before the 33rd Legislature, Corrections Director Wynnie Testamark called Warden Ishmael Smittie a master trainer of personnel.

Among his other qualifications, the new warden claims expertise in setting up procedures that help jails run efficiently. In a recent interview, Smittie said the complex could greatly benefit from having such a system.

Smittie’s appointment follows the sudden resignation of the former warden in late December. According to filings from the American Civil Liberties Union, the resignation was linked to a disciplinary action over the jail’s response to a sexual assault occurring in a jail cell.

“I cannot talk about the past administration. I can only tell you how I want to take the place forward and bring it in line with the Code of Federal Regulations, the V.I. titles [Virgin Islands Code] and stay within the guidelines of the [American Correctional Association] standards,” he said.

In an interview with the Source on Feb. 4, Smittie said he knew nothing about the alleged rape of a disabled inmate by a cellmate that took place prior to his taking office.

In her testimony before the Legislature’s Committee on Public Safety, Testamark said the incident prompted an ACLU attorney to ask a judge to place the jail under federal receivership.

The letter in which the request was made is still on the desk of District Court Judge Curtis Gomez, Testamark said.

Within a few days of taking office on Jan. 6, the new warden said the St. Thomas jail needed structure, starting with making sure all inmates are present and accounted for.

“One cluster will be counted every day,” Smittie said. Doing so ensures the people the jail is charged with holding are safe and match a photo identification system the warden plans to set up.

“One of the things you’ll notice is that the administrative portion of CJC is not there. One of the things I’m trying to do is get this place administratively run right, the way a prison should be run,” he said.

Once the population of 79 inmates is accounted for, the next step will be to place similar measures over jail security resources – weapons, keys, tools and daily procedures for jail guards and staff.

“I’ve worked at 28 different prisons. I find this one to be the most challenging, as far as administrative procedures and policy. And we have to get those in place,” Smittie said.

After that, Smittie said he wants to meet the court-appointed federal monitor who makes regular visits to the jail. It’s the monitor’s duty to inform the court about the progress, or lack of progress, being made in light of a 25-year-old lawsuit over jail conditions.

The warden said the talk becomes more important in light of a Feb. 28 compliance hearing scheduled for District Court. The hearing is where the prospect of a federal takeover still awaits.

But the Corrections director says steps towards improvement, although abrupt at times, seem to be paying off.

At one of two Virgin Islands prisons – Golden Grove on St. Croix – improvements prompted a federal monitor to tell the court their schedule of compliance inspections could drop from three visits a year to two.

Now, with Smittie in charge on St. Thomas, Corrections officials say they are watching for similar results.

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