Correctional officers: More state support needed

Spectators watch during the Senate Labor Committee hearing on prison conditions at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Myriad corrections employees said Thursday they feel the state does not support them and they fear another incident like the Feb. 1 uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

That episode, which saw inmates take hostages and engage in a nearly 19-hour standoff with authorities, resulted in the death of officer Steven Floyd. His death has been ruled a homicide.

More than 50 members of the public came to a special meeting of the Senate Labor Committee, called to examine what changes are needed in the state’s prison system. About 10 attendees spoke over the course of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing.

Speakers aired grievances with the Department of Correction, accusing administrators of not caring and actively preventing officers from doing their jobs.

“We’ve been screaming for help for a long time. Nobody’s listening. It took us losing an officer to have this conversation,” said correctional officer Aaron Forkum.

Staffing, several people said, is the chief concern.

Correctional officer Jeffery Peppers speak during the Senate Labor Committee hearing. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Department of Correction has had dozens of vacancies for years and historically has paid overtime to make up for the limited staffing.

Officers say low pay makes it challenging to attract and retain people,

The starting salary for correctional officers in Delaware is $32,059, with a maximum salary of $43,147 and hazard pay of $3,120. In comparison, the average wage for correctional officers nationwide is $45,320, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We need more boots on the ground. We need more officers,” correctional officer Robert Chandler said. “Officers need to be better compensated for what we do.”

Several people pointed to a 2016 agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, which led to the department moving some violent inmates to another facility to clear space for offenders with mental-health issues.

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correction Officers Association of Delaware, said last week the agreement played a role in Mr. Floyd’s death.

Mr. Forkum said, “Rules and policies are changed frequently to accommodate the inmate population by administration. This in turn does not allow officers to do their jobs, and they are discouraged from doing write-ups and reports.”

That was seconded by officer James Fritsch, who said guards “have no control over the jail at all.”

The Department of Correction has denied allegations the ACLU agreement contributed to the Feb. 1 incident.

At one point, the audience broke out into loud applause after Sen. Anthony Delcollo responded to a woman who asked lawmakers to address the mistreatment of inmates alleged by some offenders and their family members.

“I personally … cannot swallow the notion of giving credence to complaints, however substantive and valid, that exist under a pall of hostage-taking and the loss of one man,” Sen. Delcollo, R-Marshallton, said.

The Delaware State Police is conducting a criminal investigation into the hostage situation, with no timetable as to when charges may be filed. The Department of Correction is also doing an internal examination, and Gov. John Carney has ordered a review, to be led by two former state judges.

The Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice, which had previously called for the federal government to investigate the Feb. 1 uprising, announced Thursday it has, along with the Delaware ACLU, formally sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society Inc. released a statement late Thursday taking issue with claims that the agreement was a factor in the Feb. 1 siege at the state’s largest prison. “We understand that the hostage crisis and the death of Lt. Floyd has been a traumatic experience for everyone associated with the DDOC. But statements being made by the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) and individual correctional officers that the settlement agreement ‘turned control of our prison facilities over to inmates’ or was ‘basically telling the inmates that they didn’t have to listen to the officers’ is unequivocally false,” said Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware executive director.

Lawmakers have admitted revisions to the state’s correctional system are needed, with Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, on Wednesday proposing higher salaries, and Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, saying at the end of the hearing Thursday “it’s loud and clear that we need significant cultural changes to protect our employees within our prison.”

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