Staffing shortages at the Bureau of Correction’s jail on St. Thomas have led some jail guards to work 24-hour shifts, and the director of the Corrections Bureau told a district court hearing the jail could not be improved to make it meet the standards of a federal consent decree.
Under questioning by District Court Judge Curtis Gomez, Criminal Justice Complex Warden Gilbert David said triple shifts – totaling 24 hours – have occurred infrequently since the last compliance hearing was held three months ago. But David admitted that corrections officers more often work 16-hour shifts.
Chronic understaffing and attempts to correct it dominated discussions at the Wednesday evidentiary hearing in a civil rights case that began in 1994. Corrections Bureau Director Wynnie Testamark said attempts have been made in the past few weeks to raise staffing levels.
“We had 17 people who applied for the position,” Testamark said. But the number dwindled when some could not pass the civil service test; others failed a background check. Still others failed the psychological test.
Failure to fill 29 vacancies for corrections officers costs the Bureau of Corrections $3.8 million dollars in overtime each year, the judge said. He added that the problems raised at the hearing have been heard at past compliance hearings. But Gomez and ACLU National Prison Project lawyer Eric Balaban continued to press David on the witness stand about entries in the CJC log book.
In one entry, the guard assigned to the women’s unit left their post before a replacement showed up. The post remained unguarded for eight hours. In another entry, a guard signed off duty after being on post for 24 hours, with no replacement.
The warden told the court that particular entry, on June 17, generated an incident report. Gomez pressed for answers.
“How often are Corrections officers working 24-hour shifts,” he asked. David’s answer could barely be heard in the courtroom. When asked how often guards work 16-hour shifts, the warden said three times a week, on average.
Ira Fredericks, the jail’s chief Corrections officer, was next on the stand. He told the court when a cluster at the jail goes without coverage, it’s often because the guard on duty has already pulled a 16-hour shift.
“It’s up to the supervisor to check the cluster and to inform the warden that there are not enough officers to cover,” Fredericks said. But when the judge asked how many supervisors were on duty, on any given shift, the chief guard’s answers became unclear.
By hearing’s end the judge concluded that while it was evident Corrections was doing its best to perform under trying circumstances, theirs was a longstanding problem well known to the court.
“We knew about those problems more than a year ago. Nothing has changed,” he said.
Balaban embellished the point, saying understaffing has plagued the St. Thomas jail throughout the 25 years that the case Lawrence Carty et al., vs. Farrelly has been before the court. The solution, he said, was for the government to build a new facility that could allow a smaller staff to adequately manage the jail population.
When Testamark, the Corrections Bureau director, took the stand, Gomez asked her if the St. Thomas jail facility could be deemed adequate for making the improvements called for in a federal consent decree.
Testamark said “No.”