Growing numbers of young, violent offenders awaiting trial and sentencing pose one of the V.I. Bureau of Correction’s (BoC) most vexing problems, prison management and staff told a Senate panel Thursday. According to V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer, hiring more judges might be the solution.
"Our challenges, however, remain with the number of violent and aggressive detainees associated with threat groups and personnel morale," BOC Director Julius Wilson testified.
Not only are more young men being arrested for violent crimes, but gangs are exerting more influence, feeding violence within the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility, Wilson said.
Once convicted, the prison can send gang-affiliated prisoners to stateside facilities, neutralizing the problem; but about half the prison population cannot be transferred elsewhere because they are still awaiting trial, he said, adding that prisoners are typically detained for a year or more before they are tried and sentenced.
While critical of management in some areas, union representatives agreed violent inmates were becoming a more serious problem.
"Gang violence and turf wars within the prison have escalated from the streets to the facility," said Corrections Officer Vida Edwards, appearing before the Justice and Homeland Security Committee in her capacity as a union shop steward. "This behavior is plaguing prisons around the world … however this should not be an excuse," she said.
When Sen. Ronald Russell asked why detainees are being held so long, Wilson responded that, in his experience, it takes time for motions to be filed and court calendars to be set, and that hearings are often rescheduled.
"Right now the Superior Court can use some help in additional judges," Frazer said.
More judges would speed up the process by reducing the caseload for each judge, which would in turn reduce the population of violent inmates that cannot be transferred.
"Getting that authorized and funded would help considerably," Frazer said.
Meanwhile, with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking to place the prison into federal receivership, prison staff and management agree the territory has spent resources fixing up the prison and made large strides.
But prison facilities are still far from ideal, with serious mold, mildew and other health threats and staff needs more training, better equipment and more pay, union officials testified.
"Many improvements have been made, yet decades of neglect have left many deficiencies," said Edwards. "There are many safety issues that plague the prison daily; however, the most grievous is the lack of cameras."
There are cameras, but not enough, she said, adding that some do not work and the others are limited to certain areas of the prison. "Cameras are needed in each unit and around the facility to maintain safety, custody and control," she said.
Asked about cameras afterward, Wilson said the prison is switching over to a fiber optic system, and it will be some time before the switch is complete. But when it is done, there will be a greater number of less-expensive webcam-like cameras.
Employee morale is a major problem within the bureau, largely because of stagnant pay and a lack of resources, Edwards and other union representatives said—a point also made by BOC Director of Operations Paula Leung-Kressley.
Nationwide, entry-level corrections officers are typically paid $37,000-$39,000, but the local pay scale is $27,000 for an entry-level officer, partly because past pay raises were never implemented, Kressley said.
Combined with government-wide 8-percent pay cuts on salaries above $26,000, you can have a new person being hired "who may make the same or more as someone who has been with us for seven years," she said. Kressley and union representatives both agreed pay increases would help morale.
No bills were before the oversight hearing and no votes were taken. Present were: Russell, Sens. Sammuel Sanes, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Carlton "Ital" Dowe and Celestino White. Sen. Usie Richards was absent.