ACLU holds ‘community conversation’ about Delaware prison conditions

WILMINGTON — The Delaware American Civil Liberties Union held a “community conversation” at the Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington on Wednesday concerning prison conditions in the state. The group also released findings from a study they performed on inmate complaint letters they’ve been compiling since 2012. At issue during the discussion was also the results of the Governor directed 54-page independent report released on June 2 by former Judge William Chapman and Charles Oberly, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware.

During the presentation, ACLU-DE Executive Director Kathleen MacRae expressed the opinion that a high recidivism rate, large prison population and onerous mandatory minimum sentencing were among the state prison system’s biggest ills.

“Eight out of ten people who come out of the prison system in Delaware end up back in within three years — that’s an indictment of how poorly the system is rehabilitating, educating, training and changing the behavior of the people that are incarcerated,” she said. “The legislature loves to implement mandatory minimum sentences for even the most low-level offenses. These don’t allow the judges to have any discretion to understand the individual circumstances surrounding specific incidents and people. If a person is employed full-time and they commit a low-level crime, you have to ask if putting them in jail for three to five years serves our purposes as a state and if it truly secures public safety?”

Director of the national ACLU Prison Project, David Fathi attended the presentation as well to discuss how the state fits into the national picture, and possible ways of reducing incarceration rates. According to Mr. Fathi, Delaware has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region — about twice as high as next-door neighbor New Jersey.

“It’s important to look at trends over time, and there are some that aren’t looking so good for Delaware,” he said. “Between 1999 and 2015 New Jersey cut its prison population by 35 percent over one year which is amazing. Maryland and Pennsylvania also cut their prison populations, but by smaller margins. In Delaware, the prison population has remained almost exactly flat over that period of time. A consequence are that the state’s prisons are severely overcrowded. At the end of 2015, they were at about 155 percent of their designed capacity, making Delaware’s one of the most crowded systems in the United States.”

Debro Siddiq Abdul-Akba of Wilmington asks ACLU-DE Executive Director Kathleen MacRae and Director of the national ACLU Prison Project David Fathi about sentencing reform at an ACLU hosted prison condition discussion at the Central Presbyterian Church on Wednesday.
(Delaware State News/Ian Gronau)

Mr. Fathi placed special emphasis on the recently released independent report ordered by the Governor that examined the conditions leading up to the Feb. 1 James T. Vaughn Correctional Center inmate uprising that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead. He agreed with much of the report and said that the understaffing concerns expressed by Judge Chapman and Mr. Oberly were likely to blame for the incident.

“An incident this tragic and of this magnitude, in which staff lose control of a large portion of the institution, represents a catastrophic failure of a prison to carry out its most basic task,” said Mr. Fathi. “It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of adequate staffing in a prison. If you don’t have enough staff, you can’t adequately supervise the prisoners, which in turn makes the prison dangerous for all staff and inmates. All additional services and program fail as a result as well.”

Beyond the sheer number of staff members, Mr. Fathi also expressed the opinion that competitive compensation and adequate training are also crucial to the prison system’s safety.

“Prisons function with the consent of the prisoners,” he said. “Staff will always be greatly outnumbered by prisoners. The staff’s authority and ability to control the prison rests, in large part, with their ability to command some level of respect from the prisoners and that requires interpersonal skills. fairness, consistency and rapport. These require training and experience.”

Referring to the independent report, Mr. Fathi said he hopes the state takes to heart two of its chief recommendations — addressing understaffing and reducing the overall prison population. Not ignorant to the current budget battle taking place in the general assembly, Mr. Fathi said the costs of running a prison system safely are too important to overlook regardless of budget.

“Paying prison staff a competitive wage and hiring enough staff to run the prison is going to cost money,” he said. “But that is a price that will have to be paid. Incarceration is expensive in all kinds of ways — socially and fiscally. It seems Delaware has made the political choice to have a very high level of incarceration, and it’ll have to bear the costs of doing that in a safe, humane and constitutional way. The most important recommendation in the report though is decreasing the inmate population and encouraging alternative to incarceration.”

As far as Mr. Fathi’s suggestions on reducing the prison population? He says start with sentencing reform to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and toss out cash bail.

“Cash bail locks people up for being poor — it’s as simple as that,” he said. “Bail reform could bring down the pre-trial detainee population quite substantially and very quickly.”

Inmate complaint letter analysis

During the presentation, Ms. MacRae had Paul Stanley Holdorf of the National Lawyers Guild Delaware-New Jersey Chapter, present an analysis of data the ACLU-DE has been collecting on inmate letters to the organization since 2012. Ms. MacRae claims that by looking at the volume and severity of the complaints coming out of JTVCC preceding the inmate uprising, an observer would have been able to see that tensions were rising to a head.

According to their data, the ACLU-DE went from receiving just over 100 inmate complaint letters specifically from JTVCC in 2012 to nearly 400 letters in 2016, while letters from the state’s other prisons remained fairly flat at under 100 letters per institution. The letters varied in subject, but the most common complaints were related to grievances, interference with community relations, medical care and mental health. Ms. MacRae feels that if the DOC had been tracking inmate grievances closely, officials may have also observed that the system was headed for a breakdown.

“With a proper grievance system in place, the DOC may have been able to predict this uprising and maybe avoid it,” she said. “We don’t even know what the exact policies for their grievance process are. In most states, the grievance process is public information and it’s on their DOC’s websites. That’s not the case in this state. We’ve had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to try to understand the grievance process and to determine what records and data the DOC is keeping about grievances and how they analyze it. We haven’t received a response yet, but we’re not optimistic.”

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