Correction officials, staff members still at odds over needs

WILMINGTON — More than three months after a prison officer  was killed by inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center an apparent disconnect exists between top state officials and rank-and-file members of the Department of Correction.

A special meeting of the Senate Labor Committee Monday, called to discuss conditions in the state’s prisons leading up to Feb. 1, featured hours of testimony from state correction officials and union leaders, indicating a gap between how the two sides view the situation.

While the hearing included an opportunity for committee members to publicly question several top department officials, little was said that had not already been mentioned in recent months.

As a result, correctional officer advocates were left frustrated.

While some have painted a picture of an agency in crisis since Feb. 1, Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps downplayed the issues confronting the department, although he did admit more needs to be done in some areas.

In contrast, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, echoed comments he has made before. He called the Department of Correction “broken” and blasted decision-makers for not offering more support to prison staffers.

Sen. Robert Marshall, a Wilmington Democrat who chairs the committee, noted the agency has had issues for decades and questioned how much has been done over the years to change that.

“It’s striking that if you redacted the years you’d think the report back in the ‘80s or the ‘70s was written in May of 2017,” he said to Mr. Phelps.

Mr. Phelps acknowledged the findings from decades ago “are eerily similar” to problems that exist today, but he rejected concerns that the agency needs a fundamental overhaul.

“Until we treat the underlying issues and whatever is going on there … the Department of Correction is a microcosm of the community,” he said.

Mr. Phelps said some troubles arise from societal ills and cannot be fixed unless people simply treat one another better.

In response to questions about what lawmakers can do to help correctional officers, Mr. Phelps, himself a former officer, recommended adding 100 guards, raising pay and placing more cameras inside the facilities.

Staffing issues, long a source of frustration among correctional officers, have been spotlighted over the past three-and-a-half months. The state has for years relied on overtime to cover for a shortage in the number of correctional officers and Mr. Klopp has complained salaries are too low to recruit and retain people.

Gov. John Carney has proposed increasing hazard pay — effectively raising starting salaries from $35,179 to about $37,000 — as well as adding 75 new officers and spending more on equipment and training.

Filling vacancies is first on Mr. Klopp’s mind, and to accomplish that, even Mr. Phelps admitted higher salaries are needed.

“Part of attracting more people will be … giving a livable wage to the officers,” the commissioner said.

Mr. Phelps and former Vaughn warden David Pierce were among those subpoenaed to speak at the hearing in what is believed to be the first use of subpoena power by the General Assembly since 2000. While Mr. Phelps protested the subpoena, claiming it was not properly issued by the full General Assembly, both he and Mr. Pierce did agree to attend voluntarily.

Committee members did not ask about the Feb. 1 incident itself, about which Mr. Phelps had indicated he would decline to answers questions. The committee instead focused on conditions in Vaughn and other Delaware prisons in the years leading to the inmate uprising.

An agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware that led to the department moving some violent inmates to another facility to clear space for offenders with mental-health issues did not cause the Feb. 1 incident, Mr. Phelps said.

But others disagreed.

Former officer Karl Hazzard said it prevents officers from properly disciplining inmates at times. Mr. Klopp said it was “hastily implemented” and drawn up without any input from correctional officers.

The two also disagreed with both Mr. Phelps and Mr. Pierce on the subject of punishment of employees who report problems in the department.

Mr. Hazzard said some people have been promoted too fast and do not seem to care about those under them, leading to a lack of respect.

“People must first think that you care before you care what you think,” he said.

Fortunately for the state, many of the issues plaguing the Department of Correction are known. Unfortunately for decision-makers, there’s another factor: money.

With the state facing a projected shortfall of approximately $400 million, officials say they cannot fully fund all the needs.

The General Assembly has until June 30 to affect change through legislation. The team conducting a review of the prison will provide its initial findings to the governor by June 1, with a full report due Aug. 15.

While most of the hearing centered on problems hindering correctional officers, some advocates see the situation as a chance to improve both the conditions of inmates and correctional officers.

Delaware, former New Castle County President Chris Bullock said, has a “narrow window” to address the problems in its prison system. The state can not only make the prisons safer but can reduce recidivism by making the agency’s approach less punitive, he believes.

“Is it going to be called the Department of Correction or the Department of Punishment?” he asked.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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