Corrections officers have a job that "even people with thankless jobs consider a thankless job," trying to ride herd on some of the most dangerous people in the U.S. Virgin Islands with inadequate equipment, short staff, low pay and unsupportive management, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice & Public Safety was told Tuesday.
It was what one senator called "an eye-opening hearing" and another "a come to Jesus moment" in assessing the needs of the territory’s prison system.
Tuesday’s daylong hearing was the second of three planned on assessing the needs of the public safety structure in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Committee Chairman Kenneth Gittens said that, at a hearing in March, department heads discussed what they are doing to improve the territory’s police, prisons and fire services in light of reduced budgets and a rocky economy.
Tuesday it was the workers’ turn, and representatives from the Police Department and the Fire Service talked about problems with contracts and equipment and the way their jobs are structured. But it was the employees of the Bureau of Corrections who really rattled the hearing with stories of how hard it is to control the flow of contraband – drugs, cell phones, weapons – into the prison, while keeping murderers, thieves and rapists inside.
"We know who’s bringing stuff in," Sgt. Linford Warner told the senators. The list includes contractors, delivery people and some jail staff, including managers. And that’s the problem.
Warner said he saw a BOC manager selling and using cocaine at a St. Thomas club, but when he reported it to his superior, nothing happened.
"He told me, ‘He’s been clean since then; you just don’t like him," Warner testified. Warner said he should sit down across the table and "work things out" with the man he had reported.
"I told him, ‘I don’t negotiate with crack heads.’" Warner said.
He also told of seeing an inmate being chased by another inmate who was armed, and of jail staff being seen in a cell where drugs were being used.
"I at least need a bulletproof vest," Warner said.
That might be a problem because bulletproof vests are just one of the supplies that the Bureau of Corrections is short of, Lt. Elvis Roper of the Golden Grove Correctional Facility told the senators.
Roper called the Bureau of Corrections "an ignored branch of government."
"Our duties are the most dangerous and stressful," he said, pointing out that, on any shift, prison guards have to deal with a cell block of 24 to 50 inmates. "That’s more inmates than we have civilians in this room," he told the senators, staff and observers assembled in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
The trouble starts with staffing, he said. There aren’t enough guards to adequately keep tabs on the prison population and there’s not enough support staff to back them. And with an entry level salary of $24,500, it’s hard to attract good candidates for jobs filled with stress and danger, he said.
That salary is supposed to go up to $27,000 at end of each employee’s training period, "but doesn’t happen often," Roper said. He said bureau employees have not received an increase since their 2001 contract, and officers with more than a dozen years of experience find themselves making the same salary as officers with two years experience.
Meanwhile the BOC employees underwent the 8 percent salary cut imposed on almost all government employees two years.
Corrections officer Rawle Watkins, a shop steward for the union representing the prison guards, reeled off a list of shortages and shortcomings at the prisons.
Besides bulletproof vests, there’s a shortage of handcuffs – the one thing you’d think a prison would have plenty of – tasers, gun holsters, extending batons and radios. There aren’t even prison guards to monitor the recreation area and the library, let alone run the commissary, which is often manned by support staff who are not properly trained to work among the prison population.
The way prison guards clock in and out of extended shifts – some of which last 24 hours – causes them sometimes to not be paid for hours worked, Watkins said.
"The way the system is paying us is in direct violation of the V.I. code and the collective bargaining agreement," he said.
The first thing to fix, Watkins suggested, would be to raise the starting salary to a competitive rate to attract the most qualified employees possible, and to follow that with regular increases, making sure guards are paid for hours worked.
Roper said that promotions are handled haphazardly and in a way that suggests favoritism, adding that it’s common for the staff not to find out that an advancement is open until the position has already been filled.
He also suggested improving the prisons’ technical systems, including setting up a video conference system so that inmates would not have to be driven to court as often. Many jurisdictions use video arraignments to save transporting costs.
That would be especially helpful since the bureau also does not have enough vehicles, Roper and other prison employees agreed, which often makes prisoners late for court hearings, angering judges.
Lawmakers suggested the prisons need to install body scanners at check points to detect contraband coming into the prison, but Roper said there already are two scanners at certain stations – but they haven’t worked in over a year.
In response, BOC Assistant Director Dwayne A. Benjamin said there are protocols in place for on-duty officers and visitors checking in and out the facilities to prevent things being smuggled in.
"All I ask is for all officers do their jobs properly,” Benjamin said.
But Sen. Diane Capehart said that wasn’t good enough.
“It seems your protocols need to be revamped because the inmates are still able to bring in and use these contrabands," she said.