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Undercurrents: Prison Population Grows Despite Transfers

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

A few of the Virgin Islands inmates transferred last spring to a for-profit privately run prison in Arizona have lodged complaints about the facility, V.I. Bureau of Corrections Director Rick Mullgrav has confirmed.

Mullgrav said the bureau is reviewing and will address the complaints, which he described as “pretty much reasonable,” but also indicated they did not involve health or safety concerns.

Meanwhile, the number of prisoners at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix has more than doubled in the ten months since its mass transfer of inmates to Arizona and Florida in early March 2016.

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At that time, BOC reported there were 257 V.I. prisoners incarcerated in stateside prisons, including 105 who were transferred in March. There were just 52 left at Golden Grove.

The director’s office said late last week that there are now 238 V.I. inmates in stateside prisons and 129 at Golden Grove.

Mullgrav attributed the increase in prisoners housed locally to “sweeps by police” and said “the numbers are constantly going up.”

Most of the newly incarcerated have not been convicted. They are detainees awaiting trial, he said.

“I can’t say” whether those who are convicted will remain in the territory or be sent stateside to serve their sentences, Mullgrav said. One consideration is their ability to work on community projects.

“Do we have work to keep these guys busy?” Mullgrav asked. And can the government use them for work, thus saving labor costs?

Mullgrav was on the mainland in December. He said he visited the Arizona facility – Saguaro Correction Center –and met with V.I. prisoners there.

Besides the usual complaints about prison food, he said “a couple of guys” had requested to enroll in classes in electronics and had been refused on the grounds that spots in those classes are normally reserved for inmates whose release is near. There were also complaints from some inmates who are Rastafarians that they could not attend religious services in their faith.

When the Virgin Islands prisoners were first sent to Arizona, they were segregated from the other large ethnic group, inmates from Hawaii, to avoid social clashes and to ease their transition, but at the time Mullgrav indicated that situation was intended to be temporary.

“They (have) started slowly working them in together,” Mullgrav said last week.

For decades the BOC has transferred some of its prisoners to stateside institutions. In some instances, it is because Golden Grove did not provide for inmates’ special needs, including mental health services, or could not provide the required level of security. In other cases, it was to alleviate overcrowding.

The 2016 mass transfer was announced in the context of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s proposal to save money. BOC reports the average cost to house a prisoner stateside is $85 a day, in comparison with $150 at Golden Grove. Mullgrav added that the cost in Arizona is just $67. The bureau has the responsibility of transporting inmates back to the territory when they finish their sentences – or for court appearances – and Mullgrav said that cost is included in the per day charge in Arizona.

But don’t start tallying up the savings just yet.

Mullgrav said BOC has not decreased its workforce as the result of the transfer because it was so markedly understaffed before the move.

“We still don’t have extra personnel per se,” he said.

Long term, he said, “My wish list would be to rebuild” Golden Grove and “bring inmates back home.”

In the meantime, BOC does occasionally connect inmates held stateside with their families in the territory via teleconference. This year, there were seven such sessions, according to the director’s office. 

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