DOC commissioner says virus no reason to release prisoners

Claire DeMatteis

SMYRNA — There’s no plan to expedite inmate releases as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Delaware’s prison facilities are now operating at less than 75% capacity, according to the Department of Correction.

COVID-19 largely has been limited to a minimum security housing unit at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and there’s ample space to handle more cases, the DOC said.

DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis discussed an array of issues during a nearly 50-minute question and answer session on Monday night.

“The other side of releasing inmates is where do they go,” she said. “We’re all about re-entry, now we’re just going to release a bunch of people with no place to go, no health care, no job, no prospect for a job.

“Exactly how does that help us? In a prison system that has confined any COVID cases showing symptoms to fewer than 10 you’re going to release them into a society that has thousands of cases so I don’t follow that logic and I don’t see why because of a virus it’s a reason to release inmates.

“The people who are saying release inmates would be saying that if you had a virus or not and are just using COVID-19 as the excuse and I just don’t follow that logic.”

The comments came during a Virtual Community Listening Session with State Sen. Darius Brown broadcast on Facebook live.

The presentation had around 2,060 views as of Wednesday morning and drew nearly 390 live comments frequently referencing continued concerns for inmate health and safety.

On Wednesday, DOC announced a two-week operation to combat the coronavirus at JTVCC and Sussex Community Corrections Center. The plan includes, among other points, the distribution of face masks to an additional 360 inmates, upping the total to nearly 900 across correctional facilities, along with expanded COVID-19 testing.

Freeing inmates elsewhere came from different circumstances than in Delaware, according to the DOC.

“I understand that people are seeing that on the news in other states (that) probably have serious cases of COVID that they can’t handle,” Commissioner DeMatteis said. “That’s not happening here.”

Also, the state’s Board of Parole is a public body and currently inactive, with a backlog already awaiting. The Attorney General’s office, victim and court must also review the process before a determination is finalized, Commissioner DeMatteis said.

As of Wednesday, the Level V population was 4,098 compared to 4,478 on March 1, the DOC said. The Level IV violation of probation/work release population was 463 compared to 608 on March.

The recent drop was on top of a 25% inmate population drop over the past six years, the DOC said.

There are currently 1,650 inmates at Vaughn Correctional, down 575 from 18 months ago.

“There isn’t double bunking, triple bunking you hear about,” Ms. DeMatteis said on Monday. “It’s a much decreased population …”

Penalties for probation violations have been relaxed during the health crisis, bringing less incarcerations to begin with, according to the DOC.

“That’s at the direction of the courts where it should come from so there’s not hundreds of people and I think that’s perhaps the perception, sitting in prison on technical violations of probation,” according to the DOC commissioner.

That’s not an unlimited free pass for probationers committing infractions either.

“By the way I’m not (wholly) proud of (it),” Commissioner DeMatteis said. “Public safety is our first mission, our primary mission. I don’t want people out there on probation violating … and not being held accountable. That’s not good policy but the reality is in a world of COVID those administrative warrants and those technical violations are being held in abeyance until we get out of this.

“Now we’re relying on offenders to do the right thing, probationers to do the right thing, and when they don’t and there’s serious violations then, yes, they’re going back to prison.”

As of April 14, DOC processed six court-ordered releases of detentioners as a result of bail modification orders. Additionally, Family Court also ordered 64 releases statewide of persons being held for civil non-payment of child support. The moves were made in response to the health crisis, the DOC said.

Administrative warrants returning an offender to custody pending a violation of probation hearing that previously averaged 200 per month are down to 35 monthly at this point, the DOC said.

Bringing inmates back

DOC still plans to bring back 300 Level V inmates transferred to Pennsylvania in July 2018 as mandatory correctional officer overtime was “unsustainable,” according to Commissioner DeMatteis. Overtime hours have dropped during the crisis, the DOC said

At this point, the goal is to have all the inmates back in Delaware by the end of the year, with transfers hopefully beginning in two months.

“It was always meant to be temporary and it’s still meant to be temporary,” Commissioner DeMatteis said. “… As soon as we get out of this health crisis, hopefully by June, we’ll starting bringing back some of the minimum security offenders from Pennsylvania.”

None of the Delaware inmates held in Pennsylvania through the interstate agreement have tested positive for COVID-19 and the commissioner said regular checks continue. A prisoner being held in New Jersey did test positive, she said.

As of Monday, more than 500 inmates were equipped with face masks when in the facility’s kitchen, garment area, infirmary and with compromised immune systems. Making more masks available at this point would increase the ongoing security risk, Commissioner DeMatteis said.

“Inmates find ways to hide contraband in ways that you wouldn’t believe, in mops, socks,” she said. “Masks would be another way (to do that.)”

The commissioner is banking on the continuation of limited COVID-19 impact within prison walls, which is always subject to change.

“If it spreads to other tiers or buildings we’ll consider masks, it’s not a hard no,” she said. “We understand their anxiety bur right now there is no evidence of COVID.”

According to the DOC, masks are being worn in prison, work release, and violation of probation facilities by all correctional officers and contract health care workers.

The DOC currently has 1,750 sworn correctional officers on staff, with less than 140 current vacancies. That’s half the number since 2017, officials said.

Correctional Officers Association of Delaware leadership meets with DOC administrators three times a week.

COAD President Geoff Klopp said the ongoing relationship “Is the best I’ve ever seen.

“COAD has been extremely satisfied with the level of communication with the commissioner and the DOC’s leadership team.”

Reduced overtime

There’s been staffing relief as outside visitation is on hiatus, inmate transports reduced, programs and recreational area gatherings affected. Unscheduled overtime shifts (known as “freezing”) has dropped significantly and overall overtime hours are down, the DOC said.

“We’ve not been able to do business the way we’d like but due to the shutdown of some services there’s been so relief and ‘freezing’ has been quite limited,” Mr. Klopp said.

Officer’s pay hasn’t changed during the pandemic, and the overtime scale remains the same.

“We feel that’s something that can be addressed at a later time because there’s far more pressing needs to save lives,” Mr. Klopp said. “Of course we’d like to have that be discussed but it’s not a good time with far more pressing issues right now.

“Our job is far more stressful, far more difficult, but it’s also a difficult economical and personal time for a lot of Delawareans, our people understand that,” Mr. Klopp said. “A lot of us are grateful for job security and (realize the important role they play).”

Prison facilities by nature require confined spaces with women and men in close proximity and “Other than health care workers I can’t imagine a more challenging environment to work in and remain safe,” Mr. Klopp said.

“These are unprecedented times and our staff is doing the best it can during a very difficult time.”

Officer stress spiked following the riot at JTVCC and death of Lt. Steven Floyd in February 2017, and the age of COVID-19 “takes us back to those stress levels. It’s just a very stressful time, you can just feel it among our officers,” Mr. Klopp said.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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