Delaware correctional officers’ union proposes safety plan

DOVER — Citing low staffing as “the root cause for many of the problems inside the jail” correctional officers proposed a safety plan to state lawmakers on Wednesday morning.

The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware said the plan was e-mailed to all 62 state legislators “and hand delivered to many.”

The union cited the death of Department of Correction officer Lt. Steven Floyd during an 18-hour prisoner uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna on Feb. 1 as forcing the state to confront long-standing safety issues.

“An absolute failure of leadership at the highest levels of government led to the events which culminated in the horrible death of a Correctional Officer — and the constant jeopardy to the lives of every other officer,” the union’s message to senators and representatives stated.

“Unfortunately, it has taken these horrific events to force attention to issues overdue for attention.”

Adding more officers topped the union’s wish list, along with all staff receiving working radios and oil based pepper spray.

Attracting more candidates will require a competitive compensation and retirement package, according to the union.

“Until that happens the department will continue down a very dangerous road of hiring employees just to turn right around and lose them,” union president Geoff Klopp said.

Addressing the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and general assembly members, the union asked for action on its requests no later than May 1.

The correctional officers called for, at this point:

• A complete staffing overhaul for all facilities.

• A complete overhaul of the salary structure for all officers.

• Having no fewer than two employees assigned to any post where inmate contact occurs, including outside hospital duty.

• Employee benefits days (vacation, sick, holidays) based upon the employee’s regularly scheduled daily hours.

• Employees to be paid through eSTAR from the time they clock in until the time they clock

The correctional officers’ association is asking for regularly scheduled vacation days, a $500 attendance bonus, more communication equipment, higher starting salaries, an increase of about $1,900 in hazard pay, monthly paid training days and an end to the ACLU agreement.

“We need action on this as soon as possible,” Mr. Klopp said at a General Assembly committee meeting on Tuesday. “We cannot wait until July 1’s new fiscal year due to the extreme staffing situations that we are currently trying to survive.”

He said staffing at Vaughn is at a “breaking point.”

Working overtime

According to Mr. Klopp in a statement, there were 597 overtime shifts required at JTVCC “this week” and it was unclear how many were required at other state prisons.

Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said the state has neglected officers for too long.

Rep. Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, said it is “time to do what’s right for these people that put their lives on the line.”

DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps, a former correctional officer, stressed the department is working with OMB on a staffing study that will show how many more people are needed.

“All I can say is this is real,” he told listeners. “It’s not a game to these officers, and they deserve way more respect than they get.”

Mr. Klopp expressed skepticism the state would follow through on promises made by officials.

“It raises concern and alarm that in future after the staffing study, after the dust settles and everybody forgets Lt. Floyd was murdered and we ask for 200 positions, is the legislature and leadership and DOC going to say, ‘Well, you guys can probably get by with 100?’” Mr. Klopp said.

Mr. Klopp pointed to Gov. John Carney’s announcement that the state will hire another 75 officers and purchase state-of-the-art communications and security equipment.

“That sounds great on the surface, but the reality is that we can’t retain the officers we have now,” he said.

Also, an independent investigation of DOC matters will be conducted by ex-Delaware Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely and former Judge William L. Chapman Jr.

“The governor will take seriously any recommendations that emerge from that review, and he is committed to taking appropriate action on those recommendations,” spokesman Jonathan Starkey said.

The DOC and Office of Management and Budget are currently working “expeditiously to review and address recruitment and retention of quality correctional officers,” Mr. Starkey said.

“That review includes an examination of hiring strategies and potential adjustments to the entry salary for correctional officers through collective bargaining starting in the spring.”

Confrontation reported

In a news release, the correctional officers’ union reported a confrontation between officers and a JTVCC inmate that required pepper spray to bring the prisoner into compliance.

The prisoner was cleared of injuries by medical staff, the union said, and no officers were reported injured.

COAD described the incident at 4:10 p.m. as an “assault” at a cell in the infirmary area.

“If there was an additional staff member or two in the infirmary when this incident took place, would this assault still have occurred?” Mr. Klopp asked rhetorically. “I think not. There is safety in numbers. We do not need a special commission to see that.

“COAD has presented a real solution — the time is now to act on it.”

Department of Correction spokeswoman Jayme Gravell confirmed an incident, saying “an inmate acted aggressively toward an officer yesterday, but there is no indication this officer was injured.”

There was no comment available by prison officials on staffing issues.

“The DOC cannot comment on staffing as this may create an unnecessary safety risk to our staff and the inmates entrusted to our custody.”

The DOC referenced Gov. Carney’s proposal as well, with Ms. Gravell describing, “a number of measures which will improve safety and security for everyone at JTVCC. He has proposed an addition of 50 officers and has agreed to invest in new equipment which will allow for a more effective and efficient response to incidents.”

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