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Senators Still Puzzled by Demotion of Corrections Director

March 2, 2006 — During a Rules Committee session Thursday, senators questioned nominees to various government boards and commissions on a plethora of subjects, including the demotion of former Bureau of Corrections Director Joseph Ponteen, the inability of the government to receive federal funds for historic preservation sites on St. Thomas, and the decision to resurrect a board that has not functioned for more than ten years.
While questioning Samuel Garnett on his nomination to the V.I. Parole Board, senators first took the opportunity to praise Ponteen and his work within the Bureau of Corrections. Garnett said the demotion should not have happened, and Sen. Pedro "Pete Encarnacion" said he has asked Ponteen and Attorney General Kerry Drue to appear at a Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee meeting – of which Encarnacion is the chair – scheduled for March 6.
Ponteen, acting Corrections chief since early 2005, was demoted last week by Drue, who said Ponteen "repeatedly failed to implement easily attainable improvements" at the Golden Grove prison. (See "Prison Guards Defend Ponteen, Petition for Reinstatement").
"We really need to get a clarification about what happened in that situation," Encarnacion said. "I got a telephone call from union representatives concerning the issue, and they said they were appalled at Director Ponteen's demotion. I also felt that he was doing a good job, and has been unifying the institution, so we need to know the reasons behind Attorney Drue's decision."
Sen. Ronald E. Russell said the effects of Ponteen's demotion extend beyond the Bureau of Corrections. "There is a consent order between our government and the federal government relating to the condition of our prisons," Russell said. "If the conditions of that consent order are not met, then we could possibly have to deal with the federal government coming in and taking over another one of our agencies – I don't think we want to continue to deal with that kind of situation."
Garnett was also asked whether the government should change its sentencing laws to allow individuals convicted of first-degree murder – who, under the V.I. Code, currently serve mandatory life sentences – to be eligible for parole. Garnett said he did believe the mandatory sentencing law should be changed since the prison system should be geared toward rehabilitating inmates. "We're paying so much money to keep some of these individuals in the prison system," he said. "However, what we should be trying to do is rehabilitate the inmates, so they could return to the community and live their lives without returning to the system."
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville piggybacked on Garnett's statements by calling the current sentencing laws "Draconian" and told senators that inmates are serving long sentences for crimes less serious than murder.
"People pay a lot more taxes when these individuals are kept in prison," Figueroa-Serville said. "It's about time we reprioritize our system and get back into the habit of rehabilitation."
Garnett's nomination was unanimously approved and sent on to the full body for further consideration.
Senators also extensively questioned Felipe Ayala and Ronald Lockhart, nominees to the Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Commission, about issues relating to parking in the downtown Charlotte Amalie area, renovations to Vendor's Plaza on St. Thomas, and the availability of federal funds to preserve historic sites in the Virgin Islands.
On the topic of Vendor's Plaza, Ayala said the area should be remodeled to fit the specifications laid out in the V.I. Code. "There is a proposal mandated by law about how that area should look – that there should be uniformity," Ayala said. "The law also states that the vendors should be selling local goods; if you look at what's being sold at Vendors Plaza today, you'll see that most of the goods there are made in Taiwan. I think that we should go back to having the plaza meet the required mandate, and I think that the vendors should abide by that."
Lockhart proposed that the plaza be relocated to one of the abandoned buildings in Market Square.
Ayala further told senators that St. Thomas is ineligible to receive funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which gives money to preserve historic areas designated as World Heritage sites. "Two-thirds of the buildings in St. Thomas would have to be in their original condition for us to receive this funding," Ayala said. "If you look around the island, many of the buildings have been restored or changed."
Ayala added that sites in Christiansted or Fredericksted on St. Croix would be able to qualify for UNESCO funding.
Both Ayala and Lockhart's nominations were unanimously approved by the committee and sent on to the full body for further consideration.
In other action, senators decided to hold the nomination of Randolph Latimer to the Public Works Acceleration Board, which, they said, has been inactive for more than ten years.
Senators said Acting Commissioner of Public Works George Phillips had to explain his decision to reactivate the board before Latimer's nomination could be approved.
Present at Thursday's meeting were Sens. Russell, Figueroa-Serville, Encarnacion, Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards, and Celestino A. White Sr.

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