Correctional officers’ union says nine lines not enough

 

Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps enters the House of Representatives at Legislative Hall before the State of the State Address on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Gov. John Carney gave a nod to the state’s Department of Correction and its officers during his State of the State address on Thursday. The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware felt the nod wasn’t big enough.

“The governor speaks of the DOC in only nine short sentences in his State of the State address,” said COAD president Geoff Klopp. “While we deeply appreciate what the governor said about salary increases and the use of technology, that alone is not the answer. Let’s face it: as long as Delaware continues to incarcerate people at the rate it does, change in the DOC should be the top priority.”

Acknowledging that there are many issues for the governor to tackle, Mr. Klopp persisted that the DOC should still be at the top of the list because of the public safety implications.

“Yes, the environment, education and economic development are important to our quality of life in Delaware — but no one died in 2017 because of what we did or did not do for the environment, education or economic development,” he said.

At the top of Gov. Carney’s speech, he lauded his administration’s “historic investments” in the DOC.

“Nowhere have we made more investments in our state employees than in the DOC,” he said during the address. “Fifteen days into my administration, the hostage incident at James T. Vaughn (Correctional Center) took the life of Lt. Steven Floyd and stole a sense of security from the thousands of correctional officers who work throughout our system. We have been working every day since February 2nd to make our prisons safer and to address the conditions that contributed to that terrible tragedy. Based on the Independent Review Team’s recommendations, we reached an agreement to increase salaries for Delaware’s correctional officers. We have implemented significant investments in equipment, recruitment, technology and training at the DOC and we’re installing cameras at James T. Vaughn and other correctional facilities as we speak.”

In the wake of the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at Vaughn prison that left Lt. Floyd dead, Gov. Carney ordered an independent review to be conducted by a former Family Court judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III. It was completed last September and produced a 159-page final report. Issues cited in the review included communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers, chronic correctional officer understaffing and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners.

Since then, an agreement was struck to increase correctional officer starting salaries up to $40,000 at the beginning of last financial year. It’s structured to increase again to $43,000 at the start of FY2019. The governor’s office says that the increase in salaries added up to a $16 million investment. Coupled with an additional $2.3 million to authorizes 50 more correctional officers at Vaughn and 25 more at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution, $2 million for new cameras at Vaughn and $1.3 million for safety equipment, the administration claims to have invested $21.6 million in the DOC over FY2018.

Additionally, the governor appointed Claire DeMatteis as a temporary special assistant to the DOC to spearhead the prison reforms suggested by the independent review. Ms. DeMatteis released a six-month progress report last week.

Mr. Klopp said that while the COAD has made progress with Gov. Carney’s administration, they are still worried about the conditions that their members must continue to work in.

“The fear of COAD is simply this: for most of the years of the Carper, Minner and Markel administrations, DOC was largely ignored,” he said. “Problems were ignored. Things got worse. On Feb. 1, 2017, the crisis exploded again. A special assistant and another blue ribbon panel report notwithstanding, something has to be done. Nine sentences in a speech are not enough. We look forward to working with the governor and General Assembly — in good faith — to address real concerns and real reforms. Carelessly throwing money at a problem never works. Perhaps involving the ones within the system in the reforms is a good start.”

Seeming to acknowledge the level of attention prior administrations had paid to the DOC, Gov. Carney reiterated his commitment to following through on prison reform during the address.

“I made a commitment that the Independent Review report will not collect dust on a shelf — it has not, and it will not,” he said. “Changes will continue in 2018, led by Commissioner (Perry) Phelps and with the guidance of a special assistant we appointed to make sure this work gets done quickly and well.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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