DOC: 209 correctional officer positions still unfilled

DOVER — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: More than 10 percent of correctional officer jobs remain unfilled despite efforts from the state and complaints from the union, while probation and parole officers are calling for pay increases and protesting what they see as unfair treatment.

According to the Department of Correction, 209 of 1,904 CO spots are empty — a vacancy rate of 11 percent. But because that number includes supervisors as well as the rank and file guards who handle the day-to-day supervision of inmates, it can be misleading.

Per the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, there were 1,508 COs employed by the state as of Saturday, which is actually a decrease of 18 from one year ago.

The state’s prisons have been understaffed for years, an issue that came to a head Feb. 1, 2017, when correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed in an uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. In the aftermath, both lawmakers and the governor pledged to make changes to improve working conditions in the jails and provide more resources for inmates.

Two years in, the effort has seen mixed results. Although officials have highlighted the new staff additions, the state continues to have trouble recruiting and keeping quality candidates.

Appearing before the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee Tuesday, Commissioner Perry Phelps sought to emphasize progress is being made but will take years to be complete.

“If it takes a dog three days to walk in the woods, it’s going to take a dog three days to walk out,” he said.

The high stress, long hours and relatively low pay involved with the job make it an unappealing option for most despite the state hiking salaries from about $35,200 to $43,000 since the Vaughn riot. COs have long complained about being forced to work multiple shifts due to understaffing, contributing to an environment perhaps best described as toxic.

“No correctional officer interviewed was able to articulate a consistent description of what was expected of them as an employee of the DOC,” states a September 2017 report produced by a former state judge and U.S. attorney at Gov. John Carney’s request. “In fact, the only consistent answer provided by correctional officers was that their goal was to get through their shift safely so that they could go home.”

COAD Executive Secretary George McClure urged committee members to continue raising pay and improving retirement benefits, noting 18 of the 22 graduates from the most recent Correctional Employee Initial Training Academy class indicated they were seeking to simply use a job with the Department of Correction as a stepping stone to a position elsewhere, such as with Delaware State Police.

The department has managed to stem the bleeding a bit: This time last year, it was losing 13 officers a month, a figure now down to 11.

But some fear it will grow worse if more steps are not undertaken: According to COAD, around 320 officers are eligible to retire over the next seven years. Making matters more complex is a staffing study that recommended 137 new positions for Vaughn, which were not included in Gov. Carney’s budget proposal.

Still, JFC appeared pleased with the agency’s efforts, with this year’s meeting lasting only an hour after legislators spent three hours hearing from the department, officers and advocates in February 2018.

Mr. Phelps told JFC the department has seen big steps in the right direction, noting the recent transfer of around 300 inmates to Pennsylvania has allowed the state to reduce forced overtime levels, which could result in cost savings within a few months.

“It’s a big puzzle,” he said. “We have one piece in place and we still need to move three or four around to make it work.”

The agency has added a recruiter and has been trying to attract people through job fairs, commercials and college visits, as well as reaching out to qualified Delaware State Police applicants who end up not being hired there. It has also established a signing bonus for new hires.

As they continue to work on recruitment and retention, officials hope to lighten the load on correctional officers. By housing inmates in Pennsylvania, the needed staffing levels are temporarily lowered and the state can convert the Central Violation of Probation Center near Vaughn to a drug treatment center for criminal offenders.

The hope is to bring inmates back after the two-year contract with the Keystone State is up and the center has been overhauled.

According to Mr. Phelps, after having 142 instances of “freezing” — officers being made to work a second shift after finishing their first — at Vaughn in one week in August, the facility reported zero such occurrences last week.

Delaware spent almost $31 million on correctional officer overtime for the fiscal year ended June 30, up from $22 million the year before.

Also speaking before JFC Tuesday were several probation and parole officers, who continued to sound the alarm over what they see as unequal treatment from the state.

Probation and parole officers make less than other members of law enforcement in the state and have an inferior pension structure compared to state police while being the only ones who need a bachelor’s degree to enter the field, Todd Mumford, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 10, said.

As a result, morale is low.

“You need to build a system that reflects the quality you expect,” Mr. Mumford said.

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