Correctional officers union: DOC budget provisions ‘an embarrassment’

 

DOVER — Some may have left Gov. John Carney’s press conference on Thursday with a spring in their step. Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, wasn’t one of them.

“The changes for corrections in his budget were embarrassing,” he said. “We’re not going to make it through the summer. They’re not treating this as if it were a crisis. This is a crisis. They’ll find out this summer when we have another riot.”

Since the Feb. 1 uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, Mr. Klopp has been aggressively lobbying state officials to increase the starting salaries for the correctional officer position to draw qualified candidates to the position and increase existing salaries to improve retention. But his concerns about a “staffing crisis” began before the most recent incident.

“I’ve been letting legislators know for the past 3 years that we’ve been in a staffing crisis and they haven’t done anything,” he said.

Although Gov. Carney’s budget laid out addressing security in Delaware’s prisons as a “key investment,” Mr. Klopp feels that the hazardous pay increase, call for additional correctional officers, and new equipment and training provisions in the plan don’t go far enough toward a solution.

“It’s a $1,500 pay raise when we can’t even get people to fill out an application now — it’s not enough. It only brings the starting salary to $37,000,” he said. “Surrounding states are paying much more and if someone can make $48,000 a year as a Lewes or Milford town cop, where do you think people are going to apply?”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for correctional officers in Maryland is between $40,570 and 48,560. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it’s at least $49,830.

Mr. Klopp said that a call for 75 more correctional officers is irrelevant because the DOC is losing more officers right now than they can replace.

“The pay isn’t enough to draw qualified candidates to the position,” he said. “What does it matter to call for 75 more officers when the DOC has 150 vacancies they can’t even fill right now? We just had a cadet class graduate last Friday — 13 of them went to JTVCC. We have another 23 cadets in the academy right now that don’t graduate until June and that’s it. We’ve hired 46 officers this year but we’ve already lost 77. Last year we hired 121 and lost 147.”

Mr. Klopp predicts that the DOC will continue to lose officers at the increased attrition rate they’ve seen since the Feb. 1 uprising, but with the salaries currently in place they won’t be able to replace all the officers they lose.

In a Dec. 2016 interview with then DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe, he said that several reliable contingencies are in place that would prevent an emergency situation in the event of a staffing crisis.

“If we ever get to the point where we have a significant staffing shortage and we’re not able to rebound fast enough, we would go back to our core mission which is the safety and security of the institutions,” he said at the time.

Mr. Coupe noted that the DOC would first pull back on outside work such as hospital escorts, court escorts and transport work in the event that there was not enough manpower to staff crucial positions. Enlisting the overtime assistance of probations and parole officers who have been either cross-trained as or originally promoted from correctional officers also would help stem a staffing crunch.

Mr. Klopp said on Thursday that the DOC is already taking all these measures and it’s still not enough.

As a final contingency, before perhaps reaching out for federal assistance, Mr. Coupe said in December 2016 that the DOC can lean on its partnerships with local law enforcement.

“That would be the next step, to call in the state police,” said Mr. Klopp. “I don’t know how that would even look because it’s never been done before.”

Disappointed with the outcome of the budget proposal, Mr. Klopp said that state officials are treating the DOC’s issues as if they were on the verge of crisis rather than actively in crisis.

“It’s like giving aspirin to someone who’s having a heart attack,” he said. “It’s not enough.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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