Council on Correction bemoans lack of presence, guidance from DOC chief

DOVER — According to the Council on Correction’s posted agenda, they were slated to discuss the “responsibility of the council” and “the future of the council” on Tuesday afternoon.

Instead, much of the conversation was monopolized by how the council is hamstrung by the lack of input and guidance from DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps.

Members of the council claim that a commissioner or other high ranking DOC officer has traditionally been available to answer questions and brief the council on prison policy and conditions at each meeting.

However, since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, this hasn’t been the case.

The meeting Tuesday night was the second of the year where no high ranking member of DOC staff was present — with the exception of departmental spokesperson Jayme Gravell at last month’s meeting.

“There’s entirely too much going on right now for us not to be in the loop,” said council member Tyrone Johnson, who was absent from May’s meeting. “I refuse to sit at this table and not have the inclusivity and authority that we’ve had provided in years prior. I’ve sat under three governors and almost four commissioners. For no one to be at this table? It’s the first time I’ve seen this before. For me, it’s unacceptable.”

According to state code, the Governor-appointed seven-member council serves in an advisory capacity to the Commissioner of Correction and “shall consider matters relating to the development and progress of the correctional system.” Four of the seven council members were present at Tuesday’s meeting.

The code also states that the council is responsible for considering “matters as may be referred to it by the Governor, the commissioner and the Chief of the Bureau of Adult Correction.”

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” and must meet a minimum of six times annually. A quorum of members has met twice so far this year.

Answering a question about what the commissioner’s expectations are for the council, Mr. Phelps replied in an email:

“The Council on Correction is a valuable resource for the DOC and we look forward to hearing their recommendations to help move the Department forward.”

Echoing Mr. Johnson’s sentiments during the meeting, council vice chairman Richard Senato — a retired DOC employee himself — said without an official presence the council will just be “spinning its wheels.”

“I’m involved with several committees with the Governor, and this is the only one that’s sort of stagnated,” he said. “It really shouldn’t be allowed to because it can really be a good committee. If I’m going to belong to a committee, it has to be active.”

Seeing a fairly large public response at their last meeting from members of the public advocating for inmates’ rights, Mr. Senato also said that it’d be prudent for the council to have access to correctional officers willing to describe their conditions as well.

“I think our last meeting was constructive because we had a chance to hear about the publics’ situations, but I think we should have an opportunity to hear from correctional officers working at these facilities too,” said Mr. Senato.

After the discussion, the council resolved to make an official request to the commissioner that either he, or one of his deputies be made available for the Council on Correction meetings.

“We’re an advisory board, and in order to advise, we need input first,” said Mr. Senato. “We need input so that we can see certain tangible things that are happening in the prison system so we can make suggestions.”

Going a step further, Mr. Johnson feels that it’s also time for the council to seek guidance from Governor John Carney. “The commissioner didn’t assign me to this council, the governor did, and I’m here on his and the people of Delaware’s behalf so as a courtesy and reciprocal behavior, I will talk to the commissioner, but I think at some point this council needs to have a conversation with the governor to ask him what he wants from us,” said Mr. Johnson.

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. The council’s next meeting — open to the public — has been set for July 20 at 4 p.m. at the DOC Administrative Building on 245 McKee Road in Dover.

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