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Emergency, Corrections Problems Remain Unresolved

Feb. 26, 2007 — Over the past few years, representatives from the territory's emergency-response agencies have outlined a clear need for more funding, equipment and manpower, but little has changed.
Despite the fact that money has been appropriated for items such as new positions, vehicles and repairs to existing facilities, government officials said Monday that the situation has not yet improved.
Monday's Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee meeting was the first of two called by At-Large Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft. Throughout the day, representatives from several law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies, ranging from the V.I. Police Department to the local Office of Homeland Security, came to the floor to discuss ongoing efforts geared toward decreasing crime and addressing some of the territory's land, sea and air-patrol problems.
Many of the statements made during the meeting were similar — a majority of the testifiers said they were having trouble recruiting new employees, communicating with managers or other division heads and receiving their allotments from the Department of Finance or the Office of Management and Budget. The testimony consequently prompted senators to focus on more pressing issues, such as the state of the territory's corrections system and the need to put more police officers on the streets.
Some of the questions posed to the testifiers, however, went unanswered. While officials recently appointed by the new administration discussed their future plans and ongoing initiatives designed to revamp the local public-safety system, more experienced employees provided little information about the current state of affairs.
Frustrated by the responses, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. began to question why these individuals are still working for the government. "We need some new people," he said.
In particular, senators scrutinized the testimony of representatives from the Bureau of Corrections (BOC), who fielded questions about the agency's operations, the state of territory's jails and the promotion of corrections officers.
In response to questions posed by Wesselhoft about how the bureau's ranking and promotional structure are set up, BOC Warden Agnes George explained that there currently is no system in place to determine an officers' seniority, and no criteria set for officers applying to take the promotional exams.
"We were supposed to have the ranking structure done last year," George said. "But I couldn't find the document in the office, so I did it over. I haven't turned it in yet because I wanted (Attorney General Vincent Frazer) to look it over."
Under questioning from Senate President Usie R. Richards, George later said that she has handwritten a draft of the document, but has not yet typed it up for Frazer to review.
When senators said they were concerned about how officers are promoted, George explained that the Division of Personnel is in charge of administering the exam. "All the testing is administered by Personnel," she said. "The officers come in and apply to take the test, and Personnel sends a list of names down to us. That's how the promotion is done — we don't have any real criteria."
George could not answer a question posed by Sen. Alvin L. Williams, who asked whether the foundation of the Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix was sinking.
However, Frazer gave senators a more detailed description of the corrections system, which he described as "very dismal."
"There is much to be done to fix the Bureau of Corrections … however, I must tell you that it is not going to be a cheap or inexpensive proposition," he said. It would take "tens of millions of dollars" to modernize the bureau's facilities, hire 200 more officers, train managers and build medical, dental and mental-health facilities for inmates and personnel, Frazer said.
While the task is daunting, Frazer says that efforts are ongoing to improve the conditions of the territory's prisons and rehabilitate inmates so that they are able to "successfully" integrate back into the local community.
"Just because we incarcerate these individuals does not mean we should dehumanize them, because when they have served their time, they come back to join us in our neighborhoods," he said. "It is not my intention to serve as a superintendent of a corrections system that simply warehouses individuals. True rehabilitation is definitely a main component of our plan for the corrections system."
Frazer added that he will also deal with prison security — streamlining the system to prevent prisoners from escaping. Checks are also being conducted on inmates to safeguard against the infiltration of weapons into the facilities, he said.
"As for negligent corrections officers, that is something that will be dealt with as well," Frazer added.
Present during Monday's hearing were Sens. Liston Davis, Carlton Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Richards, Williams, Wesselhoft and White.
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