COAD: Prison understaffing an ‘Armageddon situation’

 

DOVER — The Delaware Department of Corrections is currently on course to spend $30 million in overtime pay this financial year — which would be a roughly 36 percent increase from FY2017’s total of $22 million. The DOC confirmed that it had spent $15.3 million on overtime by the end of this financial year’s second quarter (Dec. 31). Correctional Officers Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp is confident that the DOC will break $30 million for the year.

“Right now we’re at $20 million,” he said. “With the amount of overtime shifts we’re calling, we’re spending about $2.5 million per month. I have no doubt that we’ll comfortably exceed $30 million.”

Mr. Klopp said the DOC has “an Armageddon situation” in terms of understaffing and is trying to raise the alarm that another incident, like the fatal inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna last year, may be imminent if big changes aren’t made quickly.

The DOC noted that as of last Wednesday, they had 275 correctional officer positions vacant. However, it’s widely recognized that the number needed, is far higher. The DOC recently completed a staffing study at Vaughn prison, but has said the results “are not ready for the public.”

Correction Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp stands in front of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“I can confirm that the staffing study says Vaughn needs 130 extra full-time correctional officer positions to be created,” Mr. Klopp said. “The DOC is also planning to have the same studies done at Sussex and Howard R. Young Correctional Institutions. I know just from calculating the overtime — they’re each calling for 300 shifts per week — that there will be at least 100 more officers needed there too. This isn’t even counting the level four facilities in the state.”

Combined, Mr. Klopp said there is likely over 500 vacancies total that need to be filled. With an ongoing rash of retirements which is set to rise, he said the situation could quickly go from bad to worse.

“If we count in working officers who will be becoming eligible for retirement in the next few years, that number can shoot up to around 800 vacancies,” he said. “But, just because an officer becomes eligible, doesn’t mean they’ll retire right away.”

Mr. Klopp also grimly says the DOC’s academy currently has a negative replacement rate.

“We’re only scheduled to hire 44 more people between now and the end of June — we’re going to lose between 45 and 60 between now and then,” he said. “We’re not even treading water, we have 100 less correctional officers today than we did at the same time last year.”

DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell noted that after the cadet gradation ceremony schedule for today, the officer vacancy count will drop to 248.

What’s being done?

In the wake of the Feb. 1 inmate uprising last year that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, Gov. John 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 in January.

Mr. Klopp said the governor is to be “commended” for his efforts to address the DOC’s ills, but feels that the General Assembly has failed to provided the needed resources to adequately staff the agency.

“The Governor and the DOC needs more support from the General Assembly so corrections can be funded to the point where we can successfully get more cadets into the academy,” said Mr. Klopp.

On Thursday, Gov.’s office spokesman Jonathan Starkey said the work ahead was “challenging,” but the administration remains committed.

“The Governor has worked closely with COAD to raise salaries for officers as part of a broader effort to improve recruitment and retention across Delaware’s correctional facilities,” said Mr. Starkey. “That effort included the formation of a Labor Management committee to continue working together to address this very issue and many others. This is challenging work that will require commitment over the long term. The Governor is committed to it, and will continue to request resources from the General Assembly that he believes will help.”

What’s needed?

The DOC, the governor’s office and General Assembly appear to be investing in a long game that focuses on systemic reform. But, Mr. Klopp said reforms have not translated into increased academy enrollment numbers. He believes that a “simple solution” has been looking the state in the eye for over a decade: salaries. He said the recent boost was not enough.

“It’s a $1,500 pay raise when we can’t even get enough people to fill out applications right now — it’s not enough,” Mr. Klopp 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 has repeatedly made the argument over the last year that the amount of overtime already being paid should convince taxpayers that higher salaries would be better than absorbing an “insane” overtime budget.

Without a more substantial boost in starting salaries, Mr. Klopp said the understaffing “crisis” will continue to worsen.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re running a prison or a McDonald’s, if you can’t get qualified applicants who want to work in the position through the door, it’s because your compensation package isn’t attractive enough,” he said. “The big difference is; no one dies if we don’t get our French fries.”

Because policy change can take months to have their intended effects, Mr. Klopp said he’s beginning to wonder if the staffing crisis has already passed a critical point.

“There’s no short-run fix here, we have to hire more officers immediately,” he said. “But, if I was to fill out an application today, it’s still going to take anywhere from two to four months just to get in the door of the academy. Then it’s another two months to complete the academy. If any changes were even made right now, it might be six months before we were to see results.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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