Attorney General Vincent Frazer turned over a symbolic key to the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility to Bureau of Corrections Director Julius Wilson Thursday, ceremonially marking the transfer of the BOC from a unit of the Justice Department to a separate agency under the governor.
"This much anticipated moment comes after a year of planning and preparation and after many years of trusted guidance from the Department of Justice," Wilson said in his prepared remarks. "As a stand-alone agency the bureau will remain committed to successfully carrying out its goals to provide quality care, adequate services and enhanced security for both staff and inmates. … All citizens of the Virgin Islands are entitled to a highly functioning correctional system that not only meets standards and expectations but exceeds them."
In his prepared comments, Frazer said he had high hopes for the bureau under Wilson, and that he believed with proper support he may be able to have at least one of two federal consent decrees affecting the territory’s prison system lifted.
"It is as though you are watching a teenager getting ready to leave his or her parents’ house," Frazer said. "You are happy for the teen, but you are also concerned because you are aware of their shortcomings and imperfections. But, those fears are soon alleviated because you are reminded that the teen has been well prepared to face future challenges."
By statute, the BOC became a separate entity Oct. 1. The territory’s one prison at Golden Grove has been under a federal court-ordered consent decree to improve security and living conditions since 1986. Since then, the system has been sued by the ACLU, put under a second consent decree, and struggled with a plethora of difficulties, from escapes, understaffing, overcrowding, smuggling in of contraband and weapons, and violence.
Trying to address these longstanding issues, the Legislature decided in 2008 to move the bureau out of Justice, giving the governor direct authority to hire and fire prison wardens, and giving the director of BOC more power over choosing staff and making decisions affecting the system. The goal was to establish clearer lines of authority and responsibility.
Wilson has served as BOC director since Oct. 1, 2008, when Gov. John deJongh Jr. appointed him to clean up in the aftermath of the escape of four prisoners. Wilson served for more than 20 years in the Ohio Department of Corrections before coming to the Virgin Islands.
In June of this year, a federal judge gave the territory 12 months to clean up the system and bring it into compliance with prior court orders. Funding, health care and mental health care are among the areas that need attention at the prison, according to both prison officials and the court. More rigorous procedures and training were also cited by the court.
Volunteers from Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have started holding meetings in the prison, and the St. Thomas Bookmobile has been making weekly visits to the BOC’s Alva Swan Annex in Sub Base, Wilson said in May. At that time, there were about 523 inmates in the system, about 320 of whom were at Golden Grove on St. Croix, 100 on St. Thomas, and about 120 inmates have been sent to facilities in Virginia.
Freeing up space in the prison has allowed the bureau to alleviate pressure and reduce overtime for corrections officers, while also giving the bureau a chance to renovate about 150 cells, improving conditions and moving closer to fulfilling its mandates, Wilson said at the time.