Commissioner Phelps: ‘No projects’ for Council on Correction

DOVER — At their last meeting in mid-June, the Council on Correction bemoaned the lack of presence and guidance from the Department of Correction.

Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps answered that call with his appearance at their meeting on Thursday by attending.

During the open forum portion of the public meeting, Mr. Phelps fielded questions by several members of the nonprofit organization Link of Love — a support group for family members of inmates. Most of the questions regarded mail room, commissary and medical policies and procedures in several state prisons.

Although his full cooperation with and presence at the meeting seemed to affirm the council’s value to the DOC, little was offered in the way of guidance. In response to a question about what the council’s priorities should be, Mr. Phelps said he didn’t have any projects for them to work on at the moment.

“It’s something that we’ll be discussing in the future among our executive team, but at this moment, I don’t have a project for them right now,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I won’t have one for them in the future, though. We’re (DOC) working on a lot of different initiatives right now and trying to figure out which direction to go on certain things; there may be a time where I need this council as a resource and I will call upon them at that time.”

There has been a flurry of activity around the DOC recently. Since the Feb. 1 uprising at the James. T Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, a state police and DOC investigation into the matter has been ongoing. A 54-page preliminary report, ordered by Governor John Carney, was just released last month by former Judge William Chapman and Charles Oberly, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware.

The state also just reached an agreement with the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware to raise salaries for correctional officers by about $8,000 over two years to help recruit and retain more.

According to state code, the governor-appointed seven-member Council on Correction serves in an advisory capacity to the Commissioner of Correction and “shall consider matters relating to the development and progress of the correctional system.”

Under code, the council also has the ability to “study, research, plan and advise the several chiefs, the commissioner and the Governor on matters it deems appropriate to enable the department to function in the best manner.”

Although Mr. Phelps didn’t have a specific project for the council, he is only of three state officials with the capability to help guide the group — the governor and Chief of the Bureau of Adult Correction being the other two.

Gov. Carney’s spokesman Jonathan Starkey said back in mid-April that Gov. Carney planned to review the council. “Gov. Carney believes that the Council on Correction can serve an important advisory role,” Mr. Starkey said at the time. “As a general matter, the governor is reviewing all of Delaware’s boards and commissions, and making appropriate appointments. The Council on Correction is at the top of that list.”

The status of this review is unknown, but according to the state’s website, six of the seven council members are currently serving already expired terms. However, Gov. Carney did establish an entirely new six-person Labor-Management committee last month. That committee will contain three members appointed by the Correctional Officers Union of Delaware and another three from the DOC and is designed to study ways to help recruit and retain officers and decrease the use of mandatory overtime in Delaware’s prisons.

Going in to Thursday, the Council on Correction’s posted meeting agenda was barren of old and new business. However, several action items seemed to surface during discussion. A program, called “Gold Coats”, was brought up as something the council could examine for Delaware’s prison system.

The program, started in California, entrusts certain inmates with the responsibility to look after other inmates with dementia and other age-related ailments in an attempt to foster community and reduce medical assistance costs. The council also resolved to invite Jim Elder, the recently hired Bureau Chief of Community Corrections, to their next meeting to see what assistance they can be.

Council members also agreed to request more detailed briefing on DOC statistics and information.

“In the past, we received monthly packages with statistical analysis on the inmate population and staff,” said councilman Edwin Perez. “We’d get abstracts on issues that were occurring and we would have a very detailed presentation about ongoing projects and how they were coming along. It’s important that the public see all the important programs and things going on inside the prisons.”

The council’s next meeting — open to the public — is posted for Aug 17 at 4 p.m. at the DOC Administrative Building on 245 McKee Road in Dover.

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