Despite the failure to attract even one community member to their first ever town hall meeting, V.I. Parole Board members were prepared and enthusiastic Thursday morning as they laid out what the board’s mandate is, how it carries the mandate out and what new initiatives are on the table to make life better for formerly incarcerated people. The town hall was held at 11 a.m. at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources conference room.
Former board chairman Chesley Roebuck was clear, saying, “Parole is a privilege,” which can be granted only after an incarcerated person has served half his or her sentence. However, he also pointed out that the concept of releasing someone early from prison not only benefits that person, but also the government and community.
Parole has the potential to return a reasonably rehabilitated individual back into society while saving money for the government and reducing prison overcrowding, he said.
Reasonably rehabilitated means the individual has displayed good behavior and demonstrated a desire for a new path in life, which can include attending classes and counseling while incarcerated and expressing remorse for the crime.
Parole board members also consider past criminal activity and try to access whether the potential parolee poses a threat to the community.
Victims are surveyed as part of the parole assessment with responses ranging from not caring to compassion for the perpetrator.
Board members in attendance, which also the included current board chairman, Dennis Howell, and Samuel Garnett, who spent 20 years working in the prison system, agreed that the board’s expectations for release were often thwarted by the lack of available classes and other services in the prisons.
Howell said although a parole plan should be put in place the moment a person is incarcerated, that is only possible when the systems are in place to help the inmate meet the goals of the plan.
However, when the resources are not available, “You can’t blame the person (inmate) completely; BOC (Bureau of Corrections) has a role to play,” Garnett said.
Roebuck said parole petitioners often tell him there were no classes or counseling available or they were full.
Along with hoping the Bureau of Corrections will eventually be able to provide better and broader rehabilitation opportunities for the incarcerated, the Parole Board has developed its own plan to help that population.
“This board is antiquated,” Howell said, adding that one of the plans in place will provide electronic tablets for the board members so they don’t have to wade through reams of paper to do their jobs.
The board plans to conduct hearings at the facilities where the petitioners are being held, which includes not only Golden Grove on St. Croix, but also prisons in Virginia, Florida and Arizona, where many Virgin Islands prisoners are housed because there’s not enough room or security at the local prison on St. Croix The first trip will be to Florida in December using a $10,885 grant provided by Corrections.
Face to face meetings can be a lot more telling about whether a potential parolee is sincere, Roebuck said.
At the end of the day, Garnett said, “We try not to send people back to prison.” He said even when probation officers find a parolee in violation, “we ask Probation what else we can do. For example, can we get them to rehab if it’s a drug issue.”
Helping the formerly incarcerated is an uphill battle. Not only are there no transitional vocational or housing facilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but there is also the stigma when trying to find employment to be considered.
“Society has failed these persons,” Garnett said. “It has turned its back on them.”
Howell, formerly a management consultant, said there was hope with the help of family, friends and sometimes even former employers.
Eugene Farrell, senior policy advisor to Gov. Kenneth Mapp, who served as moderator, said that although there was a stigma that automatically narrowed opportunities, there were lots of skilled jobs that nobody else wants to do.
Farrell said, given that reality, forming their own businesses was also a way to circumvent society’s branding.
Among the other new initiatives mentioned Thursday is strengthening the relationship between Corrections and the Parole Board, training for board members, and partnering with other pertinent agencies such as the Departments of Labor, Human Services, Health and Housing.
Howell also said there were plans to change some laws, adding that he couldn’t discuss the details yet.
On the training end, the board has already received officials from the National Parole Resource Center, who left the board members with a set of guidelines – a type of objective rating system – that make decisions much more clear cut, Farrell said.
Another town hall is schedule for 11 a.m. Friday at the Education Department Curriculum Center Conference Room on St. Croix. Howell adamantly took responsibility for the inconvenient timing of the first meetings, which were both scheduled for 11 a.m. on a workday.
“It was an experiment he said,” adding that the board would certainly schedule such meetings in the evening in future.