DOC academy class largest in three years

Future correctional officers running laps around the academy gym. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — After graduating the Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security high school, Mikkaela Lee, 20, of Newark, knew she wanted to go to college for criminal psychology, but she wasn’t sure how to get there.

When she came across Delaware Department of Correction recruiters at a job fair though, the door to her future swung open.

“I know what I want study in college, but I wasn’t sure what avenue I’d take,” she said. “When I looked into becoming a correctional officer it just made so much sense because I needed a way to support myself, and pay for school and start building a career.

“From here, in five years or so, I can see myself becoming a DOC counselor or moving over to probation and rehabilitation because, ultimately. I want to have the opportunity to help inmates get reacclimated into society.”

Drill instructor Lt. Antoine Ford keeping a close eye on corrections department recruits during their physical training session.

Ms. Lee is a cadet in the DOC’s Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) academy class #226 that started mid-April. At a starting number of 51 cadets (about 45 training to be correctional officers), it’s their largest since at least May 2015.

Administrators are heralding the large class as the gain from adjusting training policies, strengthening their compensation package and hiring two recruiters.

For several years, the DOC has been repeatedly pilloried for operating “chronically understaffed” prisons and enforcing an unsustainable overtime policy. According to the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD), the agency is currently on track to spend $30 million in overtime pay by the end of the financial year and is maintaining over 260 vacant correctional officer positions.

Undeterred, new cadet Samuel Fisher says his military background encouraged him to go where the “need” is greatest. The 26-year-old former Marine from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, commutes an hour and a half each way Monday through Friday to be a part of class #226.

Mr. Fisher hopes to end up on the Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) — the DOC’s elite tactical response unit.

After military service that included a deployment in Afghanistan, Mr. Fisher likely wouldn’t have had trouble landing a corrections job in his home state of Pennsylvania, but he was drawn south by the competitive compensation, opportunities for advancement and a mission statement that appeals to him.

“There really weren’t many good opportunities up there and Pennsylvania’s mission statement looked sort of generic,” he said. “Delaware’s DOC modified theirs and I feel like I can stand behind it. It’s ‘protect the public by supervising adult offenders through safe and humane services, programs and facilities.’ I believe in programs that are trying to offer inmates trades, skills and training they can use when they get back to the outside world so they don’t end up in prison again, and I think that’s something Delaware takes seriously.”

According to another cadet, Marc Garduno Jr., 22, of Camden, the opportunity and need is just as big a draw for locals as out-of-staters.

Caesar Rodney high school graduate Marc Garduno, 22, of Camden going through an hour -long physical exercise training session at the Delaware Corrections academy.

“After graduating with an art degree from Delaware State University, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life,” he said. “I was applying everywhere, and then I saw this and it looked like a great opportunity for my future.

“Also, I’d heard that there are a lot of good officers in the DOC and that they needed help. I figured if I could help just one of them from getting frozen on their shifts, it’d be worth it, and the salary is the cherry on top. The DOC has a lot to offer, and if I’m able to become an officer, I can see myself eventually maybe getting into the training side of things or becoming a counselor.”
Sudden change?

The increase in correctional officer cadets in class #226 is sharp from the preceding class’s 16 set to graduate on April 27. Administrators credit several factors for the change.

Last year, the state legislature agreed to increase correctional officer starting salaries up to $40,000. It’s structured to increase again to $43,000 at the start of FY2019. Also, the DOC announced a new $3,000 recruitment and $1,000 referral incentive program for correctional officers earlier in April.

Hiring on two full-time recruiters also appears to be having a significant effect. Recruiters Jamie Courtney and Sean Dial have been DOC employees for 12 and 28 years respectively, so they can easily share the benefit of their experience with prospective correctional officers.

“Since September we’ve probably been around to over 50 career events,” said Ms. Courtney. “We’ve been from Virginia to New Jersey to Pennsylvania and Maryland — up and down the east coast hitting career fairs and high schools. We’re making a lot of progress because when I stop by the academy, I’m starting to see a lot of faces I recognize.”

When it comes to neighboring states, Ms. Courtney feels that she is able to put a “great offer” on the table for job hunters.

“I think we have a real competitive advantage, the DOC has given me a lot of tools to recruit with when it comes to the increase in salary, sign-on bonus, benefits package, tuition reimbursement, Delaware Technical Community College officer program and the fact that people only need to be 19.5 years old and have a high school diploma to apply,” she said. “Plus, people living in places like New Jersey are tired of paying the high taxes in their states. A lot of people are already looking into relocating. This is a great way to get started on a law enforcement career and make a living.”

Lt. Colonel Louise Layton, deputy warden in the special operations group of Delaware Correctional Dept.

The DOC also announced their first ever “youth academy” that’ll be open to the state’s high schoolers in July.

The free three-day academy will give students a crash course on the role the DOC plays in criminal justice, familiarize them with the responsibilities of various roles within the agency and leave the students certified in CPR and first-aid. Administrators hope the program will expose more of the state’s students to the potential of pursuing a career in the DOC and strengthen their recruiting pipeline.

Different kind of cadet?

While working to address understaffing concerns, DOC administration have simultaneously tried to increase the vigor of their academy. This resulted in the introduction of “drill instruction” style training and preliminary physical screening in September.

Both changes may have had the effect of reducing the number of cadets that may have gotten through the program in previous years, but administrators say that it’s imperative to not only fully staff the prisons, but properly staff them with qualified, well-trained officers.

The new regimen resembles traditional boot camp. At last Thursday morning’s physical training session a roomful of cadets were counting out their exercises in deafening unison: “Sir, one, sir! Sir, two, sir! Sir, three, sir!”

Cadets are expected to follow orders to the letter down to the minutiae of the path they walk when entering a room, how they hold their water bottles and even the amount of seconds they have to hydrate between sessions.

Training administrator Paul Shavack, who joined the DOC in September after a 27-year career with the Delaware State Police, said the improved program is turning out stronger, more able correctional officers and making a much needed change to the agency “culture.”

“We integrated the drill instruction so we could create a balance of self discipline and military bearing along with the curriculum,” he said. “Everything is very calculated. Whatever the drill instructors are teaching, there’s a reason behind it. It’s a tough program, but we need to equip the cadets with the skills, ability and discipline they are going to need in the facility.”
Mr. Shavack says the adherence to physical fitness and military-style drilling is also useful in helping to acclimate cadets to the type of life they’re headed for.

“They need to leave here in a personal wellness frame of mind, they’re going to need it once they’re working in the facilities,” he said. “It’s important both physically and mentally to maintain a certain lifestyle for this work.”

According to Mr. Fisher, who came from a Marine platoon of 91 soldiers, the drilling is the genuine article. He says it’s “just like home.”

Special Operations Group Deputy Warden Louise Layton said the preliminary physical fitness screening has helped reduce the academy dropout numbers as well — which is often a waste of both the agency and cadet’s time and resources.

“There has always been a physical fitness test at the end of the academy, but now have one to establish a baseline level of fitness at the start of the academy too,” she said. “Since making the change, we’ve only had one cadet not pass the final physical exam, and drops have been reduced generally.”

Setting the bar higher, says Ms. Layton, is not going unnoticed in the prisons.

“We’ve only been doing this since September, but were already getting reports back about the recruits were turning out and how they’re coming to work and carrying on what they learned here,” she said. “The integrity and discipline of these new correctional officers is having an impact.”

Turning point?

Often critical of the DOC’s staffing and overtime policies, COAD president Geoff Klopp notes that the agency has made some “tremendous steps in the right direction.”

With successive classes near capacity — each academy class has a maximum of 60 cadets — Mr. Klopp said the DOC may finally be able to start inching toward a fully staffed status.

“If you can get 45 or more correctional officer cadets into each of these academy classes, we could start making some real headway in six months or so,” he said. “We need to start permanently filling these vacancies.”

However, he’s hesitant to wave the victory flag early with so many correctional officer positions still empty, a burnout rate of “roughly 15 officers per month” and a significant number of serving officers nearing retirement.

Undoubtedly optimistic about the size of class #226, he says he needs to see the sizes of #227, #228 and #229 before he’s convinced the DOC has hit a turning point concerning staffing.

The next academy class won’t begin till mid-July.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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