© 2023
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Virgin Islands man pleads for a transfer from Virginia prison

Commonwealth of Virginia
Virginia accepts less than the cost of imprisoning inmates to house prisoners from the Virgin Islands here.

In the Virgin Islands the average daytime high in December is 81 degrees. Fifteen-hundred miles north, in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, it could well be snowing. It’s one of the many differences Jensen Alexander has discovered since arriving here from St. Thomas in 2012. That’s when the islands decided to ship 40 of their prisoners to Virginia at a cost of $102 a day per person – about ten dollars less than the state claims it costs to house, feed and provide medical care to a prisoner.

Since then, Alexander – who’s a vegetarian -- reports a very different diet, with island food healthier and more varied than what he’s served here.

“You get beans seven days a week, 365 days a year -- beans and carrots and potatoes. That’s all they do," he complains. "In the Virgin Island we get different stuff, like tofu, red pea soup. They have different dishes they do."

For his first year and a half he was stuck in solitary confinement because of the state’s grooming policy.

“I have dreadlocks in my hair, so when I reached Virginia, if you had hair more than two inches or if you have braids and stuff, you would have to stay in segregation,” he recalls.

Eventually he was housed with other guys who didn’t meet local requirements for hair length, and in 2019 the state got rid of its grooming policy, but Alexander says it has not gotten rid of some racist attitudes.

“Approximately 99% are white staff and most of the inmates are Black," Alexander explains. "In the Virgin Islands, it’s mostly all black staff or Spanish. The treatment is way better.”

Alexander was convicted of murder, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands he would be housed with people who had committed less serious crimes. Here, he was assigned to Wallens Ridge – a supermax facility – where he is likely to stay, even if he’s a model prisoner. That’s because a person’s crime in Virginia is the biggest consideration in making assignments -– a crime they can’t change, even if they’re fully rehabilitated.

Alexander came here with an 8th grade education, but he studied for and got his GED behind bars. He’d like to take college courses and maybe learn a trade, and the state boasts it has dozens of programs, but people set to be released within the next five years have priority in placement, so Jensen Alexander claims he can’t get in.

“If somebody has 10-15 years or life in prison, it’s really hard for them to get into classes.”

He claims to come from a poor family with no money for video visits, and a trip to southwestern Virginia is out of the question.

“I haven’t received any type of physical visits from no one for years,” he laments.

Ironically, Virginia has a program that allows transfer of prisoners to other states if it puts them closer to relatives, but their family must pay for the trip, and the bill could be as much as $7,000.

The Bureau of Corrections in St. Thomas was reluctant to speak with me and did not respond to a written list of questions, but spokesman Everitt Hansen cited damage from Hurricane Maria, which actually occurred five years after Alexander was transferred -- claiming that inmates would get better care in Virginia.

Alexander is not convinced. He had a toenail removed in 2018, because the prison doctor wanted to check out a growth underneath. The biopsy was negative, but the nail did not grow back properly, and the toe has turned black.

“I don’t know what the hell it is, so I would like to cure it so it doesn’t develop into something worse than it is,” he says.

He’s unable to get the medication he wants and is praying for recovery – and finding no religious services for a guy who’s a Rastafarian. Instead, he and other inmates from the islands meet weekly in the cafeteria without written materials or clergy to nurture their spirits.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief