Good morning, Chairman Payne, Members of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety, other distinguished Members of the 33rd Legislature, and the listening
and viewing audience. I am Wynnie Testamark, Director of the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections.
Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I understand and respect the Committee’s responsibility to oversee executive agencies that fall within its jurisdiction. And I
welcome the opportunity to discuss with you the challenges we face – and the meaningful progress that we are making – at the Bureau of Corrections (“Bureau”).
Tuesday marked one year since Governor Bryan nominated me to be Director of the Bureau. As I assumed my duties, the Governor gave me very simple marching orders: FIX IT!
That’s all he needed to say.
You see, for years the Bureau had suffered from benign neglect; it was treated almost as an afterthought. Correctional officer salaries were low, working conditions were poor, we were severely understaffed – and still are – which meant that our officers worked long hours – sometimes for 24 hours straight.
We are laboring under – not one – but 2 of some of the longest-running consent decrees
in the United States. The consent decree governing the John A. Bell Golden Grove Adult
Correctional Facility on St. Croix (“Golden Grove”) is 34 years old; the consent decree
governing the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas (also known as the “St. Thomas Jail”) turns 26 years old this year. That means that the consent decrees
governing our facilities were in place before some of our correctional officers were born.
So, when the Governor nominated me to be Director of the Bureau and told me to fix it, I
knew that I faced a challenge. But when I walked into my office on day one, I realized that I was
facing a crisis.
I found bills piled high on my desk that had not been paid. Vendors were threatening to
cut off essential services or demanding to be paid up front, before doing business with the
Bureau. Bills for goods and services that are critical to running a jail or prison went unpaid or
were paid dangerously late.
I found contracts not executed or not in existence, even though the Bureau had been
conducting business with those vendors for years. Work was stalled on critical projects, even
though the Court ordered them completed; some contractors walked off the job to pursue more
lucrative work elsewhere. And projects that were represented as having been completed – such
as the kitchen at Golden Grove – were, in fact, abandoned.
On day one, I found a Bureau that rarely if ever responded to employee grievances. I
discovered that employee grievances would go from Step 1 to Step 4 without the Bureau ever
filing an answer. Because the Bureau never answered these grievances, many times it lost, or
was forced to settle, cases that it should clearly have won. As a result, the Bureau had more
grievances awaiting arbitration than any other Government agency.
I found a Bureau with a lax disciplinary environment, where policies were often ignored,
and where rules were broken without fear of accountability. Just ten days after I came onboard, I
attended a hearing in federal court about the consent decree case at the St. Thomas Jail. It did
not go well.
I was astonished as I watched a video in Court of a correctional officer attacking an
inmate who complained about finding a bug in his food. As bad as that excessive use of force
incident was, what made it worse was the fact that the correctional officers were never
disciplined for their actions. Rules were broken, policies were not followed, and a correctional
officer who needlessly attacked an unarmed inmate was never held accountable – because the
time to impose discipline had run out.
Something else happened at that hearing that sounded an alarm. The judge asked how
much longer would it take to achieve full compliance with the consent decree, now that 25 years
had passed. Our then legal counsel said that it could take another 25 years to reach full
compliance. In other words, we represented to the Court that it would take a total of 50 years –
half a century – for the federal consent decree case to finally end.1 I was dumbfounded. That
meant that after 25 years of going to court and paying taxpayer dollars to experts, there was still
no plan in place to get out from under the consent decree. That was unacceptable.
Shortly after that hearing – or maybe because of it – lawyers for the American Civil
Liberties Union (the “ACLU”) asked the judge to place the St. Thomas Jail in federal
receivership. What does that mean? That means that as we sit here today, there is a petition on
Judge Gomez’s desk that would allow for a federal takeover of the St. Thomas Jail. We are only
a hair’s breadth away.
To make matters worse, in August, the Court issued an order that would have fined the
Bureau $2,500 per day for each task it was assigned that it failed to complete. That order could
have resulted in fines of up to $32,500 a day ($2,500 per uncompleted task x 13 tasks). 2
Upon taking command at the Bureau, I found an agency in crisis. We were in a steep
nose dive. I had no choice but to take immediate, corrective action to avoid disaster. Because of
the tireless work of the dedicated men and women at the Bureau, I can report to you today that
we stopped the free fall; we leveled off; and now we’re beginning to climb.
READ THE ENTIRE STATEMENT: Director Testamark Statement for Legislative Hearing – 2020-Feb-13