Council on Correction’s future remains in limbo

From left, Council on Correction chairman Darryl Chambers and council members Richard Senato, Muhammad Salaam and Jane Hovington discuss the future of the group at Tuesday’s Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee. The committee decided to table the decision to either terminate or retain the council based mostly on lack of input from the Department of Corrections. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — A decision to either terminate or retain the Council on Correction was tabled at Tuesday’s Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee meeting mostly due to a lack of input from the Department of Correction.

A requested statement regarding the DOC’s expectations and recommendations for the council had not yet been received.

DOC Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead, who was attending, assured the joint committee that they’d have their input “soon.”

During the meeting, the committee approved several recommendations the council submitted, including the proposed drafting of a code amendment that would enable the council to remove one of its members of neglect of duty, a commitment to finalize the council’s bylaws and plans to hold council meetings in more public venues in each of the three counties.

Holding council meetings in public is something council chairman Darryl Chambers has been hoping to accomplish since he was appointed last September.

The current council meetings are open to the public and there is a “public comments” portion, but they’re held at the DOC headquarters in Dover. Visitors must sign in and be searched for weapons before being admitted entry — a security detail also monitors the meeting itself.

Council member Jane Hovington noted that having meetings throughout the state might improve access.

“If we hold meetings in all three counties, we may be closer to families that may have a desire to come and discuss certain issues,” she said.

Mr. Chambers has said that a focus on community engagement may help address some of the DOC’s systemic ills that have been in the spotlight since the deadly inmate uprising last year on Feb. 1 at Vaughn prison.

“I want a community presence at all our meetings,” he has said. “If we don’t have communication, nothing gets done. I plan to get people talking. I want to make sure that this council is not seen as an extension of the DOC, but that it’s operating independently and we’re not taking any sides one way or the other.”

According to state code, members of the council serve without compensation, but they are eligible to be reimbursed for reasonable expenses related to their duties. The council has no budget allocation.

Council shakeup

Although the decision to keep or axe the council has been deferred, the last few months have been productive compared to earlier in 2017. Before last September, every one of the council’s members were sitting on expired terms, it suffered from low attendance and failed regularly to form a quorum.

DOC representation was also missing regularly from the council’s meetings.

After noting in April that the council would be reviewed and “appropriate appointments” would be made, Gov. John Carney’s office removed former chairman Roger Levy, Melissa Dill and Elder Tyrone Johnson from the group in September and brought on Mr. Chambers, Jennifer Powell and Muhammad Salaam.

The remaining four members’ terms were renewed and the council now has seven members.

There has been a quorum at every meeting since then. Deputy Commissioner Grinstead has also attended each meeting to address public comments and questions the council may have about DOC policy. Several sub-committees have been established by the council and it’s in the final stages of establishing its bylaws.

The council has even broken new ground. At their meeting last Tuesday, Mr. Chambers said he’d been asked on Feb. 8 by the DOC to independently review the footage of an inmate’s recent death.

He found no wrongdoing or negligence on the part of the agency. It’s believed that this is the first time a council member has performed this function.

Earlier this year, the DOC announced that 64-year-old inmate Robert J. Martin, had died on Jan 17. They said at the time that the body had been turned over to the State Division of Forensic Science — per standard procedure — but no “foul play” had been suspected.

According to Mr. Grinstead, the DOC was later accused of not acting quickly enough to aid the ailing inmate after he arrived for treatment in the infirmary. But, the independent review satisfied the party who’d accused the DOC.

At the time, Mr. Chambers said it was a “precedent-setting” moment.

“This is the first time the council has ever been requested to serve in this way,” he said.

“I let them know that we’ll be available in the future to perform this function if needed.”

Mr. Chambers thinks the review process may even be able to swing both ways. Instead of being asked, he says the council may now be able to request footage of contentious incidents that take place in the prison.

“It’s nice that they set this precedent — now when a complaint is filed, it allows us to at least ask for the chance to review it,” he said. “They’ve said they’re working hard on increasing transparency, and now they’re letting us hold them to it.”

Mr. Grinstead admitted that it was a different path than the DOC has taken in the past to resolve a complaint with a community member and that it may be a resource they continue to use.

“I think under the right circumstances, yes, this could be a useful function of the council,” he said.

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