An independent assessment requested by the Bureau of Corrections gave residents at a town hall meeting on St. Thomas a snapshot of the local prison population Wednesday, what issues they are facing, and what the overall needs of the prison system are.
Conducted by the National Institute of Corrections, which offers similar assessments to jails, justice systems and correctional facilities across the nation, the assessment highlighted several sore spots, but specifically looked at the high number of mentally ill in the prisons, overcrowding in the jails on St. Thomas and the age of the facilities.
Officials from NIC said that coming up with solutions should be a community effort, particularly when it comes to deciding who should go to jail or whether it makes good financial sense to build new facilities.
The institute’s team took a snapshot of the prison population on a given day in July, and has been on St. Thomas this last week evaluating the Alexander Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex and Alva Swan Annex before moving onto St. Croix on Thursday.
Based on these interactions, NIC consultant Karen Albert said that on a basic level the jails need some overall rehabbing, that there should be appropriate housing for inmates with health/mental illness issues, and that prisoners should be treated more humanely, which would give them “more of the opportunity to comply.”
“Creating an environment where we have an expectation of bad behavior doesn’t work; you will get what you expect,” she said Wednesday. “Treating the jail as a physical containment unit doesn’t lend itself to good behavior and in any facility – 95 to 99 percent of the inmates will behave if given the opportunity to do so. Most of the misbehavior we have, most of that is on us. We created it.”
One of Albert’s main examples Wednesday focused on the temperature in the jails; it is so cold, she said, that the inmates are sticking toilet paper in the vents, which not only throws the rest of the facility’s air flow off, but also creates a rift between the inmates and the guards, who have jackets to keep them warm.
Putting in the face time with inmates instead of just observing them from the camera room is also important, she said. In the Alva Swan Annex, for example, there are two control rooms – one on the top and one on the bottom floor – and sometimes there is not enough staff to man them both, which makes observation difficult, Albert added. And if the guards that are available are looking at the camera instead of being on the floor, it becomes difficult to keep the inmates “occupied productively,” she said.
The Criminal Justice Complex is meant for 97 inmates but the actual population is well over 100, leaving violent criminals and the mentally ill in the same rooms or areas as the nonviolent inmates or those that are being held pending trial.
Albert said finding appropriate housing is critical to managing the population but the structure of the facilities makes it difficult to find separate space. Community input is needed to determine what sets of inmates should actually be housed in the jails, and Albert suggested that using dormitories, vocational programs, community service programs and other alternatives should be considered.
According to the team’s snapshot of the St. Thomas facilities: 70 percent of those incarcerated are in for violent crimes (which ranges from murder to assault), while 21 percent is nonviolent. A small group is being held for failure to appear in court, along with one person on a probation violation.
David Bostwick, NIC consultant, said later Wednesday that there is also more of a trend on the mainland to incorporate medical wings or mental health facilities within jails, since funding and services for the mentally ill are starting to lessen.
“Jails are becoming de-facto mental health institutions and there has been no training, in terms of what’s provided for the staff there, to handle these issues,” he said. “About 30 to 40 percent of people coming into jails have a mental health prognosis and, with the jails, the problem half the time is knowing what to do with these folks. Jails are having to devise new ways of having to deal with these populations and it is affecting their operations and structure.”
The territory is no exception, but Bostwick and local Corrections officials said that looking at the jails to decide how they could be designed better is a community decision.
“In terms of mental health, what’s happened is that over the past several years, money for mental health has gone away and, unfortunately, folks with mental health issues are ending up in jail instead of those community organizations that used to provide those services,” Bostwick said after the meeting.
“What’s changed is where people get their services, and that’s a discussion that needs more community input; you would have to decide what you want to see here, whether you need new jails or who should be serviced in the facilities you already have.”
Corrections Warden Gilbert David said after the meeting that getting the discussion started is exactly why the BOC started this assessment process.
“Right now we have two aging facilities, one that was built in 1980 and the other that was built 50 years ago but refurbished in 2004,” he said. “Presently both don’t meet the needs that we have or the standards we need to comply with according to the federal consent decree we are under.”
“The positive, though, is that we are now able to get this message out to the community with meetings like this and, if we’re going through with new facilities, which we need, everyone should be involved, not just Corrections.”