Correction Nominee Paints Bleak Picture of Prisons

Wynnie Testamark testifies Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety about conditions in the territory's prisons. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Wynnie Testamark testifies Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety about conditions in the territory’s prisons. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

Virgin Islands’ prison inmates don’t always get bare necessities, the prisons are critically understaffed, the system is not in compliance with federal consent decrees, and the buildings are aging and dangerous.

And those might not be the biggest problem, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety heard from Wynnie Testamark, nominee to direct the V. I. Bureau of Corrections.

The territory does not have a long-term psychiatric facility for chronically ill mental health patients.

She reported of the 43 inmates being held in pre-trial detention on St. Thomas, 18 are suffering from some form of mental illness. She explained that some of those 18 inmates had not been charged with any crime or were arrested for minor misdemeanors. They are being kept at the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas simply because there is nowhere else to put them.

This means an inmate with mental illness, who may not have committed any crime, may spend months or even years at the St. Thomas jail. She said one inmate, who suffers from chronic schizophrenia, has been incarcerated for more than eight years awaiting trial.

The failure to meet obligations to hospitalize and treat inmates with mental illness is a major issue in getting the federal consent decree resolved. Testamark urged the legislature to address the lack of hospital beds in the territory for the mentally ill.

Other obstacles in getting the federal government off the bureau’s back are the conditions Testamark, who was nominated to her position seven weeks ago, called the “aging, neglected, and deteriorating facilities.” She said the buildings “are increasingly costly to maintain and secure and present a danger to staff and inmates.”

She said conditions at the St. Thomas Jail are “dire.” The physical plant is old and deteriorating, according to Testamark, it requires constant maintenance. She added there are many plumbing and electrical issues and the building was not up to code.

The Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix suffers from some of the same ills that plague the St. Thomas Jail.

Wynnie Testamark (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Wynnie Testamark (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

At Golden Grove, reportedly, major maintenance issues were exacerbated by Hurricane Maria. There are major leaks in the roof, causing paint to crumble and leading to problems with mold, creating potential respiratory issues for corrections officers and inmates.

The Alva A. Swann Correctional Annex in Subbase also was severely damaged during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The Annex had been built to ease overcrowding in the St. Thomas jail. The Bureau abandoned the Annex in October and transferred its 78 inmates either to Golden Grove or the St. Thomas Jail. The Annex was built to ease overcrowding and space limitations at the St. Thomas Jail.

The Bureau houses 192 inmates locally – 88 on St. Thomas, and 104 at the Golden Grove on St. Croix. In addition to these, the Bureau pays between $12 million and $15 million a year to house 179 inmates in off-island correctional facilities on the U.S. mainland. Testamark told senators it was much less expensive to house prisoners in the states than it is to house them on island. She said the cost per day per inmate on island was $240 and off-island it was $67 per day.

Senators pointed out that housing prisoners off-island causes hardship for families and it was noted families are very important for successful rehabilitation of inmates.

As for another area of concern – staffing, Testamark said, “The Bureau is severely understaffed, which directly contributes to its ability to effectively control and safeguard inmates in its facilities.”

The bureau presently employees 186.

As for taking care of the facilities problem, Testamark sees the possibility of building a modern, 500-bed correctional facility on the Annex site in Subbase. However this requires negotiating with FEMA which thinks the Annex should be repaired. The Army Corp of Engineers, according to Testamark, is in favor of rebuilding the Annex at an estimated cost of $30 million. She thinks the $30 million might be better used as a down payment on a facility that “would go a long way toward compliance with the consent decrees at both the St. Thomas Jail and Golden Grove and would result in cost savings by allowing for the return of some prisoners now housed off-island.”

The senators did hear positive developments. At Golden Grove in recent months additional security surveillance cameras have been installed, perimeter lights repaired and additional security equipment purchased.

Testamark plans the following initiatives: implementation of work programs; community partnership for vocational and occupational training; greater reliance on technology to operate bureau facilities; and an aggressive new recruitment drive (the bureau presently has 96 vacancies).

Sen. Dwayne DeGraff questioned if there were any funds for major infrastructure improvement and was told no.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he learned no consistent structure was maintained during a prison day and said it should be looked into.

Sen. Novelle Francis said his concern was with the youths who got caught in the criminal justice system and then never could get out. Testamark replied that bureau officials, in partnership with other justice officials, had started a new program reaching out to troubled youth.