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Undercurrents: Life Beyond the Razor Wire

Undercurrents, a regular Source feature, slips below the surface of the Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.

The cream-colored compound sits high above Sub Base, perched on a ridge with a partial view of the airport below where the general populace daily exercise the freedom to fly in and out of St. Thomas at will. Not many people traverse the barely two-lane, winding road leading up and up to a place where the territory tucks away the folks who don’t quite fit into law-abiding society.

Razor wire curls around the building, around the fence encircling the outdoor basketball court, and into the brush at the side of the road, establishing an indiscriminate menace.

This is the Alva A. Swan Correctional Annex where on any given day about 100 souls are waiting for criminal trials or waiting out the relatively short sentences they have already received. It was designed to house detainees and convicted criminals whose crimes were serious enough to warrant a year or two in jail, but not the truly hardcore cases who wind up instead at Golden Grove Correctional Institute on St. Croix.

We’re here to visit an inmate who represents a very small minority of prisoners in the Annex: women. With us are Warden Gilbert David and Juel Anderson, public relations director for the Bureau of Corrections and the person who has worked for months to open this small window on prison life.

Lakisha McCoy is a pretty woman from California with a pleasant, open manner and a ready, winning smile punctuated by girlish dimples. She said she is 39 years old, but she could pass for a decade less. At the time of this interview, in mid-July, she had spent the last 17 months – or almost a year and a half – confined at the Annex, awaiting the disposition of her case. So far, her court date had been postponed three times.

This is not her first brush with the Law. McCoy said she’s been in trouble before for “credit card theft, petty theft, I.D. theft” but the most she’s ever gotten in the past is probation.

Her problems in the Virgin Islands stem from a visit she made to St. Thomas in April 2010. After a day and a half on-island she was arrested for credit card fraud. Her purchases included a diamond ring, three watches and a wallet, all of which she said were intended for resale. McCoy said she cooperated with police and gave them the merchandise, then left the island thinking all was well. About a year later she was stopped for a traffic violation in Tennessee and ended up back in the V.I. facing charges.

Under a plea bargain arrangement, McCoy said she has pled guilty to obtaining money under false pretenses. She said she was told the sentence would be two years, but it has not yet actually been imposed. Once sentence is imposed, she is hoping that – as is customary in similar situations – the judge will count her time served against the total.

Meanwhile, she’s passing time at the Annex.

McCoy described a typical day this way: Eat breakfast, shower, clean my cell – “I’m like the neat freak here” – watch TV, lunch, recreation, more TV, shower, dinner, bedtime.

Recreation for women at the Annex often involves walking around the perimeter of the basketball court 25 times since there are not enough women to field teams.

“The most (women prisoners) I’ve seen here is 12,” she said. “Right now it’s five of us.”

There is a library available with “some law stuff you can look up” and a limited number of books, though McCoy said after 17 months “most of the books I like I’ve already read.”

David interjected that the prison has received some new books, but they will have to be approved before they will be available to prisoners. Bureau of Corrections officials review books and magazines and reject those with high sexual content or violence, or any that include instructions on how to commit crime. He also noted that prisoners may not have more than three magazines at a time, since the excess paper may present security problems or a fire hazard.

Also rationed are toilet paper, feminine paper products and access to phones.

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are the usual call days, McCoy said. She used to use a lot of her time calling the public defender’s office about her case but has given that up as “a waste of time,” she said. She’s more likely now to call her mother in California or one or both of her daughters.

Each girl is living with her father, 4-year-old Masiya in Florida and Kamree, 14, in California. Kamree understands her mother’s situation, but Masiya is really too young to comprehend.

McCoy also has four brothers, one sister and a young aunt who is more like a sister, she said. She corresponds with her family and relies on them to send her things like underwear and other clothes.

Prisoners wear their own clothes most of the time and get into prison garb only “to come out of the block,” David explained. At the time of her interview, McCoy was wearing her own sweats under her government-issued jumpsuit. Plucking at the sleeve, she said, “So many people wear this, I don’t really want it to touch my skin.” In a similar vein, the female prisoners wash their underwear by hand, so it doesn’t get mixed up in the laundry.

They tend to layer up on clothes because air conditioning keeps the Annex “freezing,” McCoy said. Anderson explained the cold temperature is actually a health precaution, aimed at helping to prevent germs from multiplying and spreading through the prison population.

McCoy portrayed a generally friendly atmosphere in the women’s section on the Annex, where inmates share food, have popcorn parties and “do each other’s hair.”

She admitted to having a few disputes and skirmishes, but said for the most part, “I pretty much try to get along with everybody. I try to avoid confusion.”

There are educational programs open to prisoners, male and female, but with men so far in the majority, if anyone has to be left out it is the females. Co-ed classes just don’t work, David said, because “the guys come with their hormones.”

McCoy said years ago she went to college to study criminal law but quit after a year to start working and earning money. She’s worked in retail sales and as a receptionist. Before her arrest, she said she had decided to try again at college, this time studying business management in Oakland. “I wasn’t going to give up this time,” she said, adding that she’s still thinking about it but now. And after getting to know some of her fellow inmates, she thinks she’d like to go into drug and alcohol counseling “to help people stay out of jail.”

If she weren’t in jail, McCoy said she thinks she’d be in school now.

If she could do anything differently, what would she change?

“I would have never come here.”

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