Council on Correction will meet Tuesday in first public session since prison uprising

 

DOVER — On Tuesday the Council on Correction, an advisory group established by state code, will hold its first public meeting since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left a correctional officer dead.

The seven member council appointed by the governor is designated to serve in an advisory capacity to the commissioner of correction and “shall consider matters relating to the development and progress of the correctional system.”

Additionally, it’s responsible for considering “matters as may be referred to it by the governor, the commissioner and the Chief of the Bureau of Adult Correction.”

Per Delaware code, the council 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.”

The DOC’s ability to function in the “best manner” has been called into question by several high-profile sources.

Survivors of the inmate uprising recently filed a lawsuit against the state and several of its officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Their 52-page federal complaint lists as plaintiffs the widow and children of Lt. Steven Floyd, the correctional officer killed in the prison uprising, and the five other officers who were held hostage. Defendants include former governors Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, along with Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps and three former commissioners, and state budget director Michael Jackson and his predecessors.

Much of the complaint rests on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long ignored staffing issues within the Department of Correction.

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, has harshly criticized the DOC and governor’s management of the state prison systems for the past few years — intensifying his protests since Feb. 1 inmate uprising. Although he takes particular exception with the Minner and Markell administrations’ approaches, he has expressed concern that Gov. John Carney’s recent budget proposal doesn’t go far enough toward a solution to systemic problems.

Geoff Klopp

“The changes for corrections in his budget were embarrassing,” he said. “We’re not going to make it through the summer. They’re not treating this as if it were a staffing crisis. This is a crisis. They’ll find out this summer when we have another riot.”

According to DOC officials, as of Friday, 62 security staff have retired and 54 have resigned since Jan. 1 — 20 of the retirees and 43 of the resignees held the correctional officer rank.

On Feb. 3, 30 new correctional officers graduated from the DOC’s Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) Academy class, along with 17 more in March. There are two academy classes currently in session with 21 officers set to graduate on June 9 and 20 more on July 7.

As it stands now though, the DOC reports 152 correctional officer position vacancies.

Despite these looming concerns, the Council on Corrections failed to muster a quorum for what would have been its first meeting of the year on April 10. State code dictates that the council must meet a minimum of six times annually.

According to the council’s posted agenda, even if they did manage to meet at the appointed date, they’d have had little to discuss. There were no entires under old business and only one under new business — the establishment of their 2017 meeting calendar.

Gov. Carney’s spokesman Jonathan Starkey has since said that the governor will make reviewing the group a priority.

“Gov. Carney believes that the Council on Correction can serve an important advisory role,” he said. “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.”

DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps, who replaced outgoing Commissioner Rob Coupe on Jan. 16, has yet to hear from the council.

“Because Commissioner Phelps is newly appointed, he has not had the opportunity to be advised by the council,” said DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.

All council members are governor appointed and serve for three-year terms, except the chairperson who serves at the governor’s pleasure. All members serve without compensation, but can be reimbursed for “reasonable and necessary” expenses related to their duties on the council.

“The council serves on a volunteer basis and are responsible for creating an agenda, composing meeting minutes and scheduling meetings,” said Ms. Gravell. “The DOC does not employ council members or control the content of the meetings.”

The council’s new agenda for its Tuesday meeting suggests that it plans a review of itself alongside Gov. Carney’s. Three items now appear under new business:

• Calendar dates for 2017

• Discussion regarding the responsibility of the council and its members according to title 29

• Discussion on the future of the council

On the state’s public meeting calendar, the council’s meeting description is “to discuss topics relative to Delaware Corrections.” In the agenda, space is allotted for an open forum and public comment. The public is invited to attend. The upcoming meeting has been set for May 9 at 4 p.m. at the DOC Administrative Building on 245 McKee Road in Dover.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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