Report details how Virgin Islands inmate was able to escape

Severe staffing shortages, lack of supervision and exhaustion among staff likely contributed to the escape


By Joy Blackburn
The Virgin Islands Daily News

ST. CROIX — Severe staffing shortages, lack of supervision and exhaustion among staff at Golden Grove prison likely contributed to the May escape of an inmate who is accused of raping a woman before he was recaptured, according to a recently released report.

Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility staff learned about the escape after a woman reported to police that the escapee, Rafael Joseph, had raped her and police contacted the prison inquiring after his whereabouts. It was then that prison staff did a head count and realized he was gone.

Joseph, who escaped sometime after the 9 p.m. head count on May 11, was recaptured around noon on May 12.

The report, by independent monitor Kenneth Ray, contains newly released details about some of the circumstances surrounding the escape and also points out where the territory's failure to comply with court orders and implement basic security measures at the prison created a situation ripe for the escape - and other abuses - to occur.

Security problems

Four months after the escape, Corrections Bureau Director Julius Wilson still would not say how the escape occurred - or how short staffed the prison was that night.

"We have determined that the young man found a hole in our security that we've since plugged. I do not wish to elaborate what the hole was. But it has been plugged, that I assure you of," Wilson said.

Pressed for more information about what the lapse was and how the breakout occurred, Wilson claimed he could not say more because of security risks.

It was not clear how - if the security issue that led to the escape had been addressed - saying what the lapse had been would create further risk.

In his report, Ray points out numerous holes in security - items that have been pointed out repeatedly to Corrections officials, but which they have not addressed. He also goes into some specifics on the escape.

Although the 137-page report is about the status of the territory's efforts to comply with court orders to bring conditions at Golden Grove up to constitutional standards, several incidents - the escape in May, an attempted escape by five prisoners in June, and the problem of "ongoing serious assaults of officers and inmates" within the facility - feature prominently in it.

Ray writes that these situations overshadow the findings of the report, findings that the territory has made "virtually no progress" in complying with the court orders over the past year.

The case the U.S. Justice Department brought against the territory over prison conditions - which violate the Constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment - has been litigated for 28 years. The territory has been under various sets of court orders to make reforms at Golden Grove all that time, but so far has failed to do so.

The latest set of court orders is contained in an agreement that would settle the case if the territory would implement the reforms. As independent monitor, Ray reports to the court on how the territory is doing in meeting the mandates.

Escape

Ray makes several references to the escape and the circumstances surrounding it in the report, including:

- The investigation and incident reports on the escape document that on May 11, the on-duty supervisor called the assistant warden for help because there was a severe staffing shortage. "Reports indicated that the Assistant Warden not only refused to provide this supervisor with any assistance to mitigate the staffing shortage, but reportedly told the requesting supervisor, 'you are on your own,' " Ray wrote.

- That supervisor, according to the reports, had worked more than 20 consecutive hours, and "ultimately abandoned his or her post, reporting fatigue and concerns about an existing chronic disease being exacerbated by situational stress and no meal breaks during the shift. Incident reports also revealed that no other supervisors or leadership staff were available for assistance," Ray wrote.

- According to Ray, that means that there were no officers or supervisors conducting adequate rounds in housing units during that shift as required by the settlement agreement, and this "resulted in a serious security breach, and the alleged revictimization of a community member," Ray wrote.

- The escape also shows that perimeter security rounds were either inadequate or didn't happen at all because the inmate was able to "easily" penetrate the perimeter fence "through previously damaged and/or non-maintained" gates, and "and the fencing was found to have been cut prior to the escape," Ray wrote. Regular, routine inspection and repair of perimeter fencing "could have thwarted this escape and prevented the reported assault on a community member," the report states.

- The report also notes that although Corrections is supposed to develop and implement a policy about the clothing that inmates and staff are required or permitted to wear and possess, that has not been done and inmates continue to wear and possess personal clothing items.

"Failure to comply with this provision allowed the inmate who escaped on May 11, 2014 to go undetected in the community" until prison staff were notified of the escape, the report states. "Because the escapee wore personal clothing before and during the escape, he was able to blend in to the community for many hours prior to his apprehension."

Overworked

- Payroll documents revealed that the week of the escape, "some officers had worked upwards of 24 consecutive hours," with other officers working more than 16 consecutive hours, according to the report.

Those kinds of overtime hours create "serious staff and inmate safety and security risks in the form of staff chronic fatigue; inattention to the presence of security risks; incomplete inmate and unit searches; and overall burnout/inattention to one's post," Ray wrote, going on to find that inadequate staffing levels and overworked staff are likely major contributors "to the ongoing personal harm" occurring at the prison, "and must be corrected without delay."

- Ray found that prison staff are "dangerously overworked," and that housing units "go unstaffed and/or understaffed for extended time periods. In some instances, entire buildings are not assigned officers for entire shifts." Nearly 80 percent of Golden Grove corrections officers worked an average of 60 hours per week in 2013, with 25 averaging more than 80 hours per week, the report states.

- "Inmates are still able to defeat locking systems, get out of their cells and housing units, gain access to other inmates for social or dangerous motives, and even escape to commit violence against the community as reported in the May 11, 2014 escape investigation," according to the report.

An attempted escape

The report also sheds some light on a June 7 escape attempt that was thwarted by V.I. police officers on patrol, not prison staff.

According to the report, as many as five inmates left building 9 and gained access to the prison's rear perimeter fencing on June 7.

"Fortunately, a VIPD patrol unit was near this location, and upon observing the VIPD patrol, the inmates ran back into the building," Ray wrote.

It notes that although the V.I. Police Department was conducting a patrol, Golden Grove staff were not, as required by the agreement.

"This case likely demonstrates inadequate housing unit and officer monitoring by supervisors, as it is suspected that the on-duty housing unit officer, either by act or omission, allowed these inmates the ability to exit the building," the report states.

Ray later says that supervision of both inmates and staff is "inconsistent and inadequate," while security inspections of housing units and the grounds by both correctional officers and supervisory staff "seem non-existent or very negligent at best."

The independent monitor did point out, though, that new warden Donald Redwood did take the initiative "to arrange for additional VIPD perimeter patrols, which contributed to thwarting an otherwise potentially successful escape attempt."

Response to escape

Wilson said Corrections is trying to bring on as many correctional officers as it can to deal with the problems of low staffing levels.

"We're trying to hire all that we can. We're changing security practices too. We've closed down some posts, to add more officers to the housing units," he said.

He also said the officers on the shift when Joseph escaped had been "held responsible," although when pressed for information on what kind of discipline had been meted out, he said they had received training.

"Nobody aided this escape," he said. "We need to do additional training, so people can notice our own gaps and close them before" an escape occurs.

He ended the interview abruptly after saying the entire shift had been "held accountable."

He did not respond to later Daily News messages.

Inadequate resources

Ray - who is an expert in Corrections - says in the report that in his opinion, the territory has not given Golden Grove nearly adequate resources to address the court orders.

He writes that it is clear to him that Golden Grove, with its current funding and staff, "does not have the leadership and resources necessary to come into substantial compliance," and goes on to say he believes the prison "will remain a dangerous and unhealthy correctional institution until such time as resources are allocated and leadership are committed to actually creating lasting changes."

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