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Guns, Drugs and Gangs: Officers Call Prison a 'Third-World Environment'

June 11, 2008 — Plans are in place to improve conditions at St. Croix's Golden Grove Correctional Facility, government officials told senators Wednesday, but prison officers argued that they operate in a "third-world environment" where guns, drugs and aggressive inmates make them fear for their safety.
Wednesday's meeting of the Senate's Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice came on the heels of an unannounced visit to Golden Grove by Gov. John deJongh Jr. (see "Prison Needs 'Immediate Attention,' Governor Says After Surprise Inspection"), and a subsequent tour taken by senators Monday.
While senators said they were "shocked" by what they saw at the facility, several Bureau of Corrections officers at Golden Grove called the governor's visit an "Oscar-worthy production," in which special-assignment officers were called in at the last minute to fill vacant posts, and inmates were allowed to eat in a kitchen that they hadn't seen in months.
Generally, there is one corrections officer per 65 inmates, and little relief provided during the day or in emergency situations, said Vita Edwards, assistant BOC shop steward.
"We are understaffed and operating daily at a dangerous level for staff and inmates," she said. "The prison is overcrowded, with gangs running rampant and preying on the weak. We have to deal with unsafe job conditions, being underpaid and operating on a lack of basic equipment that puts our lives in danger every day."
Some officers testifying Wednesday reported finding cocaine, marijuana, homemade knives, shanks and rum in prison cells. One BOC officer recounted a situation in which a fight between inmates forced guards to use makeshift medical equipment — such as sanitary napkins — to treat wounds and cuts.
While the list of problems and deficiencies at Golden Grove is "monumental," it is incorrect to say the facility's inmates run the show, Attorney General Vincent Frazer said later.
"We need to stop suggesting that men and women in the Bureau of Corrections don't have the ability to maintain the control," he said. "They need more resources, I agree, but I believe that as we try to get those things for them, in the meantime we must continue to maintain an environment in which they have the control. And there are resources they can call on when they need help — the phenomenon of one person guarding a cell block is something common in most institutions."
Some senators didn't agree, and neither did a group of corrections officers who said that a few of their fellow officers are responsible for smuggling in the contraband.
Overall, a lack of adequate staff seems to be the root cause of many problems at Golden Grove, Frazer said. And since the prison operates under a consent decree with set staffing levels, officers' overtime costs currently approach $1 million for fiscal year 2008, he added.
"Due to the staffing shortages, all our activities in Golden Grove are affected," Frazer said. "We are limited in the extent of our programs that are offered to inmates because of the shortage. Our medical services provided to inmates are also affected. Our work detail opportunities are affected; our industrial opportunities are affected. Just about everything we do is affected, as long as we remain understaffed."
While the government explores the possibility of building a new prison within the territory, the pressure is on to bring change to Golden Grove, Frazer said. In addition to beefing up recruitment efforts with job fairs in both districts, a partnership with the Department of Health is in the works to improve medical services at the prison. The executive staff at Juan Luis Hospital has also offered to upgrade the prison's medical facilities, Frazer said. A full-time psychologist and mental health coordinator have also been hired, he said.
The Department of Justice is also looking at putting in a new electronic-surveillance system — estimated to cost around $2 million — to boost the prison's security, Frazer said. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to hire a new warden for the prison and a territorial prisons director.
"Many people have been working hard to make Golden Grove the kind of facility that we can be proud of," Frazer said. "All that my staff and I can do is keep trying our best."
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Norman Jn Baptiste, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell, Carmen M. Wesselhoft and Alvin L. Williams.
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June 11, 2008 -- Plans are in place to improve conditions at St. Croix's Golden Grove Correctional Facility, government officials told senators Wednesday, but prison officers argued that they operate in a "third-world environment" where guns, drugs and aggressive inmates make them fear for their safety.
Wednesday's meeting of the Senate's Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice came on the heels of an unannounced visit to Golden Grove by Gov. John deJongh Jr. (see "Prison Needs 'Immediate Attention,' Governor Says After Surprise Inspection"), and a subsequent tour taken by senators Monday.
While senators said they were "shocked" by what they saw at the facility, several Bureau of Corrections officers at Golden Grove called the governor's visit an "Oscar-worthy production," in which special-assignment officers were called in at the last minute to fill vacant posts, and inmates were allowed to eat in a kitchen that they hadn't seen in months.
Generally, there is one corrections officer per 65 inmates, and little relief provided during the day or in emergency situations, said Vita Edwards, assistant BOC shop steward.
"We are understaffed and operating daily at a dangerous level for staff and inmates," she said. "The prison is overcrowded, with gangs running rampant and preying on the weak. We have to deal with unsafe job conditions, being underpaid and operating on a lack of basic equipment that puts our lives in danger every day."
Some officers testifying Wednesday reported finding cocaine, marijuana, homemade knives, shanks and rum in prison cells. One BOC officer recounted a situation in which a fight between inmates forced guards to use makeshift medical equipment -- such as sanitary napkins -- to treat wounds and cuts.
While the list of problems and deficiencies at Golden Grove is "monumental," it is incorrect to say the facility's inmates run the show, Attorney General Vincent Frazer said later.
"We need to stop suggesting that men and women in the Bureau of Corrections don't have the ability to maintain the control," he said. "They need more resources, I agree, but I believe that as we try to get those things for them, in the meantime we must continue to maintain an environment in which they have the control. And there are resources they can call on when they need help -- the phenomenon of one person guarding a cell block is something common in most institutions."
Some senators didn't agree, and neither did a group of corrections officers who said that a few of their fellow officers are responsible for smuggling in the contraband.
Overall, a lack of adequate staff seems to be the root cause of many problems at Golden Grove, Frazer said. And since the prison operates under a consent decree with set staffing levels, officers' overtime costs currently approach $1 million for fiscal year 2008, he added.
"Due to the staffing shortages, all our activities in Golden Grove are affected," Frazer said. "We are limited in the extent of our programs that are offered to inmates because of the shortage. Our medical services provided to inmates are also affected. Our work detail opportunities are affected; our industrial opportunities are affected. Just about everything we do is affected, as long as we remain understaffed."
While the government explores the possibility of building a new prison within the territory, the pressure is on to bring change to Golden Grove, Frazer said. In addition to beefing up recruitment efforts with job fairs in both districts, a partnership with the Department of Health is in the works to improve medical services at the prison. The executive staff at Juan Luis Hospital has also offered to upgrade the prison's medical facilities, Frazer said. A full-time psychologist and mental health coordinator have also been hired, he said.
The Department of Justice is also looking at putting in a new electronic-surveillance system -- estimated to cost around $2 million -- to boost the prison's security, Frazer said. Meanwhile, efforts are underway to hire a new warden for the prison and a territorial prisons director.
"Many people have been working hard to make Golden Grove the kind of facility that we can be proud of," Frazer said. "All that my staff and I can do is keep trying our best."
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Norman Jn Baptiste, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell, Carmen M. Wesselhoft and Alvin L. Williams.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.