Delaware correction commissioner Phelps to step down

Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps announced his retirement Friday, as of July 15. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps announced Friday he’s stepping down as of July 15. No specific reason for the retirement was provided.

“When I joined the Department of Correction, I only expected to stay for two years,” Mr. Phelps said in a statement.

“I thought I would use my experience as a stepping stone for another career. I discovered that DOC was a phenomenal place to fulfill my passion for public service and am fortunate to have met extraordinary mentors, peers and supporters throughout the criminal justice system who empowered me to work my way through the ranks to become commissioner. Serving in this role has been challenging and rewarding, but I consider it an honor and privilege. I will miss my DOC family, but am very much looking forward to spending more time with my wife, children and grandchildren.”

According to the DOC, Mr. Phelps has been with the department for 31 years — starting his career in 1988 as a correctional officer.

“Commissioner Phelps has served our state for more than three decades at the Department of Correction, working his way up from a correctional officer position to the Commissioner’s office,” Gov. John Carney said in a statement.

“He has led us through one of the toughest times in the department’s history. On behalf of all Delawareans, I want to thank Commissioner Phelps for his service to our state, and his willingness to commit to the tough work at the Department of Correction. Going forward, we will remain committed to our work of making our prison facilities safer for officers and for inmates, including the work led by Commissioner Phelps and his team to help inmates successfully re-enter their communities and reduce our prison population over time.”

It’s unclear who Mr. Phelps’s successor will be, but the DOC’s current deputy commissioner is Alan Grinstead, who was appointed to the role by Mr. Phelps in April 2017. Mr. Grinstead had been the bureau chief of Community Corrections since June 2013 and he previously served in that department as deputy bureau chief and as director of probation and parole.

Long career, short stint

Though Mr. Phelps is retiring from a long career in the DOC, he served only for just over two years in the top job. Appointed by then Gov.-elect John Carney, Mr. Phelps was nominated to replace former DOC Commissioner Rob Coupe in December 2016. Mr. Coupe officially stepped down on Jan. 16, 2017. Mr. Phelps was confirmed by the Delaware State Senate on Jan. 18, 2017.

Mr. Phelps began his career at the Multi-Purpose Criminal Justice Facility, now known as Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. He’s worked in the DOC as a correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, security superintendent, deputy warden, warden, Bureau Chief of Prisons, deputy commissioner and finally as the commissioner.

Mr. Phelps’ tenure got off to a rough start. Since he began, he’s presided over a chronically understaffed department — routinely reporting over 200 vacant correctional officer positions for the past several years.

Perry Phelps (right), Delaware Correctional Commissioner, and Master Cpl. Gary Fournier, PIO Delaware State Police, react at a press conference at Delaware State Police Troop 2 in Glasgow about the events that led to the hostage situation at JTVCC in Smyrna and the death of then-Sgt. Steven Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction. (Delaware State News file photo)

The day he was sworn in on Feb. 1, 2017, a riot broke out in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center — the state’s largest prison — that would largely go on to define his career as commissioner.

Inmates at Vaughn took control of the prison’s Building C and captured three officers and one counselor during the riot that thrust the agency’s woes into the limelight. Three maintenance workers were also trapped in the building.

Inmates held the facility for 19 hours before authorities breached it into the early morning hours of Feb. 2 and found correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

The department’s failings have been laid bare in the ensuing years, with several reports released in that time that highlight how the staff vacancies, low morale and lack of leadership contributed to the uprising.

As a result of the riot, the survivors and Lt. Floyd’s estate sued the state for damages. The state settled the lawsuit in late 2017, paying out $7.55 million — thought to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware history. Over 100 inmates housed alongside the rioters in Building C have also announced a lawsuit against the state, claiming that they were assaulted and their property destroyed during the quelling of the riot, among other accusations. This lawsuit, in which Mr. Phelps is named as a defendant, is pending.

A police investigation resulted in 18 inmates being charged with perpetrating the riot. The news of Mr. Phelps’ retirement comes hot on the heels of Roman Shankaras — one of the inmates accused of orchestrating the riot — being fully acquitted on Thursday. Prosecutors have been dogged by a lack of physical evidence and unreliable inmate testimony in the case. They’ve only been able to secure a single murder conviction of the eight inmates they’ve tried so far. The DOJ dropped charges against seven more of the inmates earlier this year, leaving only two who await their day in court.

Delaware Department of Corrections Commissioner Perry Phelps is questioned during a Joint Finance Committee meeting at Legislative Hall. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Though their success in addressing its persistent systemic ills has been questioned notably by stakeholders, the DOC claimed on Friday that Mr. Phelps’ retirement comes after multiple achievements.

“Following the tragic death of Lieutenant Steven Floyd during the riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Commissioner Phelps, with backing from Governor John Carney and members of the General Assembly, was successful in leading the DOC’s 2,500 employees into 21st century corrections,” read a DOC statement.

“His achievements include significant investments and advancements in technology and security equipment, the addition of countless educational opportunities for all staff, additional programs and job training for inmates, and the creation of a Residential Treatment Unit for inmates with a mental health diagnosis.

“With support from his senior leadership and union representatives, Commissioner Phelps is responsible for the implementation of the career ladder for correctional staff, the substantial decrease in forced overtime and an increased level of professionalism among the ranks.”

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