With a weekend of violent crime on their minds, the members of the Legislature’s Rules Committee Monday tackled two issues in the territory’s prisons and jails, as well as other bills. During the hearings, several senators took time out to comment on the shootings.
“It’s time this institution stood up to do something about crime in the territory,” Sen. Louis P. Hill said at the meeting held at the Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Hill is not a Rules Committee member but came to the floor to express his views on crime, as well as other issues. Hill said bills that would have increased the penalty for owning illegal guns and dealt with the gang issue were defeated because senators feared it would send young men to jail. He said another bill giving peace officer status to federal officers is languishing without action.
Although several senators seemed reluctant to approve the bill that terms cell phones and laptop computers dangerous inmate contraband, the bill passed with all seven senators voting yes. The second bill, to make sex between Corrections Bureau staff and inmates a felony, also got the nod with all six senators on the floor voting yes.
In discussing the bill concerning cell phones and laptops, Basil Richards, who serves as the Corrections Bureau chief investigator, said that inmates are using the phones to keep up with illegal activity outside the prison, to plan assaults and escapes, and to introduce weapons into the prison.
Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson added that inmates are sending out “disturbing” pictures of themselves using their cell phones. He later clarified that to mean the pictures were X-rated.
“And they are taking photos of locks,” Wilson said, discussing other threats posed by the use of cell phones by prisoners.
Richards said inmates are paying $300 to $500 for each phone smuggled into the prison. Wilson added that his officers confiscate 10 to 12 cell phones a week from prisoners, but “not so many” laptops.
Wilson said making it a felony would serve as a deterrent to the smuggling.
“Anyone caught is punished on an administrative level, but there is no criminal penalty,” Richards said.
The administrative punishment includes time in “segregation.”
At issue for Sens. Ronald Russell and Usie R. Richards was the concern that visitors and others who weren’t intent on smuggling would get trapped by the law. However, Frazer said that when visitors go through checkpoints, they just hand over their cell phones and laptops. He said the bill was aimed at those who are hiding them to give to inmates.
The senators expect to amend the bill in the upcoming full session to spell out the penalty for violating this law. Wilson suggested six months to a year added on to their sentence.
As for the bill regarding sex between inmates and officers, Wilson said that he hasn’t been able to prove that inmates are the fathers, but several women officers have resigned after the Correction Bureau began to investigate rumors that an inmate was responsible for their pregnancies.
“I look at it as a safety issue,” Sen. Carlton Dowe said. “If you are intimate with the person you’re looking over, what else would you do?”
Wilson took it a step further and said that when officers are having sex with inmates while on the job, they aren’t working or doing the job the community pays them to do.
“You’re not watching inmates,” Wilson said.
Frazer pointed out the uniqueness of the territory’s prison system compared to the rest of the country. While on the mainland most inmates are incarcerated away from their home locations, but in the territory the corrections officers might be someone the prisoners know.
“Officers have to protect and supervise people they went to school with and blood relatives. They might know their associates on the outside and they might know the officer’s family,” Frazer said.
Both bills were sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes.
In addition to Sanes, Dowe, Russell and Richards, Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve was on the floor to ask questions and voted yes on both bills. Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen and Sen. Celestino White also voted yes on the cell phone bill.