Correctional officers union airs concerns: ‘We’re in crisis mode’

The Department of Correction has about 70 vacancies and typically loses around 11 officers a month, raising the workload for those who remain. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Department of Correction has about 70 vacancies and typically loses around 11 officers a month, raising the workload for those who remain. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Last week, a death row inmate allegedly assaulted a correctional officer, requiring the guard be transported to the hospital. It may have been an isolated incident, but some fear it is more: a sign of things to come.

The men and women who guard Delaware’s prisons are overworked and underpaid, the correctional officer’s union says.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re in crisis mode,” Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said.

The close to 1,700 people employed in this capacity by the Department of Correction play a vital role in keeping operations running smoothly in the state’s four detention centers and ensuring public safety, but the association believes the state does not provide enough support.

The department has about 70 vacancies and typically loses around 11 officers a month, raising the workload for those who remain. In 2015, 129 employees either retired, quit, were fired or received a transfer.

As a result of the shortages, overtime has become a necessity: 12,000 to 15,000 hours per week, according to Mr. Klopp.

The situation, he said, is “as bad as I’ve ever seen it in 28 years in this department.”

Other officers are not allowed to comment due to restrictions placed on them, according to Mr. Klopp, but as the union president, he is free to speak out.

The shortage, he said, is not a new issue but something that has been a problem for more than a decade.

According to Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe, 289 officers will become eligible for pensions on Jan. 1, based on changes to the length of service requirement. While 105 said they did not plan to retire, according to a survey the department distributed, 88 said they probably would and 44 expressed uncertainties.

“That would be a significant increase compared to the 10 or 11 a month that we currently manage,” Mr. Coupe said.

Corrections has stepped up recruitment efforts and expedited the process in preparation for a potential spate of retirements next year.

Overtime is not all bad — it allows some officers, mostly younger ones, according to Mr. Klopp, to make thousands of dollars more. In fact, 13 officers made more than $50,000 in overtime pay alone in 2015.

But there are two types of overtime, and the mandatory kind is considerably less popular among the officers.

“What we don’t like is what we call freezing, which is when an officer has worked their eight-hour shift and then is told they have to work another,” Mr. Coupe said.

Freezing is needed, for instance, in the event someone calls in sick. It is bad for morale and can lead to fatigue, Mr. Klopp said. In turn, that can result in slower reaction times and more safety concerns.

To counteract that, the wardens have the authority to cancel certain programs, such as a religious class, if staffing is low. They even have the ability to temporarily halt visitation, although Mr. Coupe termed that a “last resort.”

Overtime occurs for many reasons, such as other officers being on vacation, serving a suspension or transporting inmates outside the prison for medical care, but regardless of why it’s needed, the time-and-a-half pay for officers is be costly. The department spent about $20 million on overtime pay in the fiscal year ended July 1, 2015, according to a report on spending developed by a state committee. The same report officers worked more than 14,000 hours of overtime per week.

Solutions

A staffing study being conducted by the department has given Mr. Coupe a reason for optimism.

Once complete, it will provide detailed information on spending and can be presented to policymakers for reference.

“For me as the commissioner to really present this fairly to the General Assembly, to the governor’s office, I need to bring basically this assessment, you know, the science to say, this is what the standards tell us, this is what we have, this is how much we’re doing on overtime,” he said. “If you can increase staffing at this facility this number of people I can reduce overtime by this percent.”

From there, officials can determine just how much overtime is costing the state versus having a full complement of officers.

The agency is also taking steps to retain more people, although so far the practices have not paid dividends.

By better preparing people about what to expect, including using a psychological screening, the department aims to filter out applicants who are not a fit.

Mr. Klopp believes pay is the biggest obstacle to keeping officers. The starting salary in Delaware is $32,059, with a max of $43,147. Officers also get hazard pay of $3,120.

Many officers start with Delaware’s Department of Correction and then leave to another state where they can make more money, he said.

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.

“I’ve been there 28 years last month and I’ll probably make $46,000,” Mr. Klopp lamented.

In the final three months of 2015, 37 officers left the department, Mr. Coupe said. Six retired, seven were dismissed, two left because of disabilities and four moved to another state job. The remaining 18 resigned voluntarily, whether to find a new job, because they were moving or for some other reason.

In a June budget hearing, Rep. Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, urged lawmakers to find a solution, saying the high levels of overtime created too much stress among correctional officers and impacted the state’s budget.

“The amount that we’re paying overtime is one of the most significant numbers in the budget and I understand the problem but I think we need to address the issue of recruiting and retaining the people that we recruit, we train, because it’s costing the state millions of dollars,” he said.

He suggested salaries either be raised or more effort be put into marketing openings.

Mr. Klopp has another ally in Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton, who said the correctional officers have “been getting a lot of lip service.”

More money should be put into criminal justice, which could help the state attract more people for prison jobs, Rep. Smyk said.

Despite the challenges, the commissioner has confidence safety has not been compromised and officers remain positive.

“Overall I do believe the staff appreciates the steps we are taking to increase the professionalism of our agency and to give them more training opportunities,” he said.

The department attempts to work with officers as much as possible, such as ordering blue uniforms after some expressed displeasure with their brown ones.

In an attempt to keep costs down and limit mandatory overtime, the agency has taken a variety of steps, such as embracing technology. Offenders can appear in court or see a doctor from the prison thanks to video, reducing the number of guards who must watch them.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to try to improve our efficiency,” Mr. Coupe said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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