ST. CROIX — Bureau of Corrections officials are working on adding a mental health unit to a new St. Thomas jail using hurricane recovery funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A new design could be unveiled by year’s end, according to testimony before the Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure.
Funding to refurbish Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility, however, is at a standstill, Corrections Director Wynnie Testamark told senators Wednesday.
The committee also met this week with Human Services Department officials and learned that nearly four years since hurricanes Irma and Maria left damage to facilities at the respective agencies, the recovery process is slow, at best.
The facilities were damaged back in 2017, but according to officials, much of the recovery projects are far from fruition, with many still awaiting funding.
Testamark began her testimony emphasizing that Corrections facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix never closed, maintaining a 24-hour operation due to “heroic work” of the staff.
The Alva A. Swan Correctional Annex on St. Thomas was destroyed and abandoned, Testamark said, adding that the initial recovery budget was estimated for $3 million, but her agency was able to convince FEMA to allocate $17.6 million for a complete rebuild of the facility.
The plan is to build a facility that will “meet the needs for the possible future,” as well as “industry standards,” Testamark said, describing a new, directly supervised jail with fewer detention officers, a mental health unit and dental care on the site.
The design of the new facility will be ready by the end of the year, she promised.
As to the John A. Bell Adult Correctional Facility, known primarily as the Golden Grove Prison, on St. Croix, Testamark said funding remains a matter of dispute with FEMA.
According to Testamark, the agency claims some of the damage to the St. Croix prison was preexisting and not related to the 2017 hurricanes. While the roof repair for the facility was approved, the agency has a problem finding a contractor and is preparing to put out a third bid for the job, she said.
Additional problems to be addressed at this facility are a parking lot project and the presence of mold.
Testamark also touched on two COVID-19-related Corrections projects that will provide $1.2. million to pay off overtime to 100 Corrections officers, who she have been working 12-hour shifts since March 2020, as well as provision of PPE and other supplies.
“We are making a steady progress,” Testamark said, repeating that the recovery projects are delayed because of FEMA and due to problems with finding the right contractor.
Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said Corrections submitted 16 project applications to FEMA, of which 13 have been funded with $16.8 million to date.
Octalien said the St. Croix facility remains the biggest challenge for Corrections, essentially stuck in a dispute over damages, despite numerous site inspections and documentation provided.
While “navigating FEMA process” is a challenge, Octalien said, both agencies “remain steadfast” in moving forward.
Senators were not impressed.
“We are at the mercy of FEMA,” Sen. Marvin Blyden said, urging Corrections to look for other funding for the recovery.
Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory also weighed in.
“Something is obviously missing,” she said. “We are three months shy of four years since the hurricanes.”
The missing elements of the testimonies, according to Frett-Gregory, are clear time frame and benchmarks to measure the progress of the projects. She advised both Corrections and Office of Disaster Recovery to not get too comfortable with phrases such as “the project started” or “the project is in progress.”
Sen. Samuel Carrion asked how the mold situation is being mitigated and learned the problem is being addressed daily with bleach and water.
Sen. Franklin Johnson asked why the Swan Correctional Annex building hasn’t been demolished yet and learned the design must first be completed to see if anything at the site can be salvaged.
During her testimony, Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said the core of her concern has been two homes for the aged — Queen Louise on St. Thomas and Herbert Grigg on St. Croix. Both nursing homes are occupied with a reduced number of residents — about 15 at Queen Louise and 25 at Herbert Grigg. The buildings are 50 years old, and since the hurricanes hit, their condition is “appalling.”
In both cases, Gomez said, a FEMA decision is pending, while some repairs were concluded with other funds available to Human Services.
The goal is to have 60-bed certified skilled nursing facilities, Gomez said, with tentative completion dates in the third and fourth quarter of 2024. “Why only 60 beds?” Johnson asked.
“We can always expand later,” Gomez responded, admitting her initial plan was for 80 to 100 beds.
She added there is a need for more beds, but the quality of care and sufficient staff is a priority.
“I had to scale back. It goes down to money,” she said.
Sen. Kennth Gittens didn’t mince words.
“We are sitting here talking about temporary fixes,” he said, “In the meantime, we are losing our seniors to boredom, anxiety and loneliness.”
He asked about the Richmond Senior Center on St. Croix and when it will reopen.
“In July,” Gomez replied. “We are waiting for a higher vaccination rate, but the occupancy will be reduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Senators also inquired about the lack of assisted living options in the territory and discussed other Human Services recovery projects, such as Head Start centers. There are 11 territorywide, with two funded to be repaired under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
Octalien said that there are 55 ongoing recovery projects related to Human Services. Eleven of them are still pending FEMA approval.
“FEMA is the boob we keep sucking on,” committee Chairwoman Janelle Sarauw said, calling for the Human Services and Disaster Recovery to seek “alternative funding,” including CARES Act money to improve the situation in the homes for the aged immediately.
She was supported by Gittens, who pointed out the COVID-19 relief has been used for much less-needed projects like the $1 million for the lottery to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.
“Money is not the problem,” Gittens said. “It’s the money management that has been the problem in the territory.”