During four hours of questioning Monday, members of the Senate Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee didn’t mince words when they grilled Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson.
“Our next move is to do a vote of no confidence,” Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who chaired the meeting, told Wilson as the hearing wrapped up. Earlier, he told Wilson he ought to turn in his resignation to the governor.
Throughout the meeting, Gittens told Wilson numerous times he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, particularly at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix.
Gittens was particularly incensed about a July 11 homicide at Golden Grove in which one inmate stabbed another to death with a knife. Wilson said there were two homicides in the last two years at Golden Grove.
“I am concerned about the safety and well-being of the officers,” Gittens said, telling Wilson that he had increased the territory’s homicide rate by two.
Other senators were a bit less acerbic in their remarks. Sen. Judi Buckley said that with all due respect to Wilson, it seemed like a real disconnect between Wilson and what was “going on” at the prison.
Gittens was also irked that Wilson didn’t bring top Corrections Bureau brass from St. Croix. Wilson said they were in training, on bereavement leave or on vacation. He said he told his staff to take vacation during the summer since he wanted them to be around for a planned September audit.
“That excuse isn’t going to ride here today,” Gittens said.
Gittens was also troubled by the fact that Wilson moved his office out of Golden Grove two years ago. Wilson said “experts” indicated to him that he needed to give the recently hired warden a chance to establish himself in that capacity. He said he visits Golden Grove about once a month and the St. Thomas jail about twice a month.
Wilson said the St. Thomas warden’s authority was well established since he worked at the facility for many years.
At issue for some of the senators is how contraband like weapons and drugs are getting into facilities on both St. Thomas and St. Croix. After Wilson mentioned visitors vendors and corrections officers, Sen. Alicia Hansen added another method to the list.
“Cats,” Hansen said.
She alleged that people tie drugs to a cat before chasing it in through the fence at Golden Grove.
Several senators mentioned Golden Grove’s perimeter fence as a place where contraband could just be tossed to inmates.
Rehabilitation was an issue for some senators, but Wilson said despite paying them $40 a month to attend the prison’s GED program, it was hard to convince inmates to take advantage of educational opportunities offered by the prison.
He said that prisoners get time off their sentences for good behavior but suggested that they also get their sentences reduced for attending classes.
Wilson said he’d like to see legislation that gives wardens more flexibility in who gets to go on work release programs. He said that although some prisoners would do fine on work release, they’re not allowed out until they have only two years left on their sentence.
“We need more discretion,” he said.
Wilson said corrections officers’ pay was an issue, but they are going to get their raises negotiated starting with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. He said it would cost the department about $2 million to give the raises, money he said would come out of the $2.8 million the bureau previously spent on overtime.
As with most legislative meetings, numerous figures came to light. Wilson said that the territory has a 38 percent recidivism rate, which he said was about the national average.
“But that’s way too high,” he said, adding that the bureau needs to do a better job in preparing prisoners to return to the community.
He said housing and jobs were major concerns when releasing prisoners.
Wilson said 27 percent of the prisoners are serving sentence of one to 10 years, with 26 percent incarcerated for 10 to 20 years.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes, who had chaired a similar legislative committee, said that the senators must start demanding change because the situation was at a critical point.
“It’s time for serious action to be taken,” he said.
In addition to Buckley, Gittens, Hansen, and Sanes, Sen. Clarence Payne attended the meeting. Sens. Craig Barshinger and Tregenza Roach were absent. Sen. Terrence Nelson and Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly, who are not on the committee, also attended the meeting.