The Bureau of Corrections still has a serious shortage of corrections officers, which affects safety by reducing the ratio of inmates to guards and boosts overtime expenses, BOC Director Rick Mullgrav told senators during budget hearings Thursday.
As of June 30, BOC has paid $3.8 million in overtime for FY 2016, Mullgrav told the Finance Committee. BOC has a total FY 2016 payroll, including benefits, of $18.4 million. If it were to cease right now at $3.8 million, that would be around 21 percent of payroll. With three months left in the fiscal year, if overtime continues to accumulate at the same pace, it will likely grow by more than $1.2 million, to around $5 million or 27 percent of payroll. That is just shy of the 28 percent overtime costs the V.I. Police Department is projecting. (See Related Links below) In business, a general rule of thumb is that overtime should be around five percent of payroll.
The BOC has 304 positions funded by the General Fund, of which 230 are filled positions. Of those, 145 of these positions are sworn correctional staff and 85 are civilian staff. There are 74 vacancies, 44 of which are correctional officer positions along with 30 civilian vacancies, according to Mullgrav.
Right now there are seven correctional officers in the last stage of the hiring process and they are scheduling interviews for seven more, he said.
Sen. Marvin Blyden asked why it is difficult to hire enough corrections officers. BOC Human Services Manager Bernadette Clarke said a low starting salary of $24,500 had played a role in the past, but that it is now $30,000 per year, making that less of an issue. Passing the entrance exam and background check are major hurdles, she said. Mullgrav said
She said there were 42 applicants scheduled to take the most recent exam. Of those, two had college degrees, allowing them to waive the exam. Of the rest, 21 showed up for the exam, of whom four passed and 17 failed, she said.
Clarke also suggested raising the mandatory retirement age for correctional officers. Right now, V.I. statute requires retirement at age 60, but many are working longer, and being able to keep experienced officers would help, she said.
Staffing shortages have also led to potentially hazardous ratios of inmates to guards, he said.
Before March 8, the ration was 13 inmates to one officer on St. Croix and 11-1 on St. Thomas, Mullgrav said. He later said 10-1 or "ideally 8-1" would be better for the conditions at the facilities. A new, better-designed facility could have a higher ratio, though, he said.
Sending more prisoners to the mainland has improved the ratio while saving a lot of money, according to Mulgrav. Since March 8, the ratio has been reduced to 11-1 on St. Croix and 7-1 on St. Thomas, which "though still not ideal, has significantly reduced the security risks," he said.
Right now, the V.I. prison population has been reduced to 197, with 12 inmates and 51 detainees on St. Thomas, and 36 inmates and 98 detainees on St. Croix. The remaining 237 inmates and detainees have been relocated to facilities in Arizona, Florida, and Virginia, plus five more who were judged not guilty by reason of insanity, who are housed in California, according to Mullgrav’s testimony.
The cost to house an inmate in the V.I. is about $253 per day, while the cost to do so on the mainland is about $87 per day, or roughly a third as much, he said.
Conditions in the mainland prisons are largely better, he said.
"They have access to educational and other programming opportunities which we are currently unable to provide due to diminished funding, staff resources, and proper facilities. They also have continuous on-sight medical service and treatment facilities which we are also currently unable to provide in the territory at this time," Mullgrav said.
Inmates and their families complain about the difficulty of visitation, but BOC now has technology, similar to Skype, allowing families to come to BOC and at least see and talk to their incarcerated family member, he said.
Reducing the inmate population has also allowed BOC to close four housing units in St. Croix and an entire building in St. Thomas, letting it redeploy them as needed, he said.
Several senators expressed discontent with sending prisoners off island and suggested it may save money to have them here. Some suggested prisoners could be used for inexpensive labor. Mullgrav said that would increase personnel costs because of the security issues. Sen. Tregenza Roach suggested the cost was high to house them locally in part because the BOC’s fixed costs remained unchanged while there were fewer inmates. Mullgrav said the calculation was made before sending a large share off island, and that the price difference was very large.
Sen. Novelle Francis asked about reports of V.I. inmates being in lockdown for up to 23 hours a day in stateside facilities.
"It was true in some instances but not all, and a lot of times it was because of infractions and other disciplinary things. The reasoning behind it I did not find anything wrong with it," Mullgrav said.
Mullgrav presented BOC’s FY 2017 proposed budget of $35.9 million. He asked for another $1.5 million to allow more employee to receive pay increases. Finance Committee Chair, Sen. Clifford Graham said he would try but with a recent credit downgrade affecting bond plans, extra money was uncertain.
V.I. Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Adrienne Williams also presented her agency’s budget of $5.1 million.
No votes were taken during the information-gathering budget hearing.