V.I. Bureau of Corrections staff faced tough questions from a federal judge recently, amid ongoing staffing shortages that are preventing the opening of a new mental health unit at the prison on St. Croix.

District Court Judge Wilma Lewis said at the status conference on Nov. 19 that “this is not a new issue” and the Bureau is required by its consent decree to have enough staff to cover all posts and shifts.

“For years now, the staffing of corrections officers is at the root of the problems that we have in getting into compliance and moving forward as it pertains to the terms of the agreement,” Lewis said.

Given the long hours of overtime staff are working to try and make up the deficit, they may not be “covering all the posts the way they need to be covering them,” she said.

There are currently 54 corrections officers on staff, and “the goal in five years is to be at 96” under a new staffing plan, Lewis said. “When I saw that number, I looked back at the 2019 plan. And in that plan, in January of 2019, the actual staffing for corrections officers was 64. That was in January of 2019. And in July of 2021 — that’s two-and-a-half years later — the actual staffing is 54. So that’s 10 fewer,” Lewis said.

Bureau officials testified that prisons and jails nationwide are struggling to recruit corrections officers, and the competitive job market “makes it even more difficult to get correctional officers on board.”

Nineteen people recently applied and 11 are eligible to take an entrance test, so Bureau officials said they’re hopeful to have more individuals trained and hired soon.

Court-appointed monitors have pointed to the ongoing influx of dangerous contraband, and incidents of violence and sexual misconduct at the facility, as a result of the understaffing.

Lewis urged the Bureau to “spread the net as far as you can to get the staffing numbers where they need to be.”

The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating the prison since 1985, and determined there was “probable cause to believe prisoners at Golden Grove were being subjected to egregious conditions of confinement pursuant to a pattern or practice of constitutional violations.”

The Bureau has struggled ever since to comply with court orders under a consent decree designed to make the prison safer for inmates and staff, and recently backslid in some areas after a long period of sustained progress.

The outdated facility is in need of repairs and upgrades, and chronic understaffing has been a major roadblock to finally closing out the consent decree.

But according to the most recent quarterly report by Independent Monitor Kenneth Ray, of the 123 provisions in the consent decree, “seven provisions are now in noncompliance, 81 in partial compliance, 18 in substantial compliance, and 17 in sustained compliance,” and “Overall compliance declines from 49% to 46% toward full compliance.”

The court was holding status conferences every six months, but Lewis said that because some provisions have fallen into noncompliance, the schedule will shift to quarterly reports and increased engagement between the Bureau and the independent monitors.

The beginning of the hearing was inaccessible to the public because of technical issues with the court teleconference system, and large portions of testimony were not clearly audible.

Lewis asked Bureau of Corrections Director Wynnie Testamark what date the Bureau plans to open a new mental health unit, which has been touted as a progressive step forward in providing vulnerable inmates with the safe space and psychiatric care they need.

Testamark said there are a number of factors in play, and “obviously there’s the staffing issues, to allow it to function.”

Lewis said she had voiced concerns about staffing the new unit when the Bureau first proposed it, and a monitor testified that the prison is still facing serious challenges in housing and segregating prisoners even after the mental health unit is eventually open.

Bureau officials testified about their efforts to bring provisions of the consent decree back into compliance. Lewis celebrated their hard work and said she has confidence in Testamark and her leadership team, who are clearly passionate and excited to help the Bureau fulfill its mandate.

“We put some things down on paper,” and created a plan, “but please just channel that excitement into actual action,” Lewis said. “Or else this settlement agreement, this monitoring, will go on forever.”

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.