DOC Commissioner Phelps to step down: Vaughn riot, lawsuits, staffing issues plagued brief tenure

Gov. John Carney, left, joins Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe, center, and Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps at a press conference after the 2017 prison siege that left one correctional officer dead at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (Delaware State News file/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.”

However, two weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that Gov. John Carney refused to say whether he still had confidence in Mr. Phelps following allegations that contract medical workers were falsifying inmate treatment records.

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. A DOC spokeswoman noted that Mr. Phelps’s permanent replacement must be appointed by the Governor.

Long career, short stint

Though Mr. Phelps is retiring from a long career in the DOC, he served 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 as commissioner 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.

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.

Perry Phelps (right), Delaware Correctional Commissioner, and Master Corporal Gary Fournier, PIO Delaware State Police, show the emotional pain of the tragic events at a press conference at Delaware State Police Troop 2 in Glasgow about the events that lead to the conclusion of the hostage situation at JTVCC in Smyrna and the death of Sgt. Steven Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction, by inmates. (Delaware State News file photo/Marc Clery)

Inmates at Vaughn, near Smyrna, 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 trapped in the building during the melee.

Inmates held the facility for 19 hours before authorities breached it in 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 independent 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 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. That 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 the latest trial’s verdict. A jury Thursday fully acquitted Roman Shankaras — one of the inmates accused of orchestrating the riot. 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 of the inmates earlier this year, leaving only two remaining who await their day in court.

Though their success in addressing its persistent systemic ills has been questioned notably by stakeholders, the DOC said in its statement 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.”

Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) president Geoff Klopp thanked Mr. Phelps for his three decades of service, but lamented the conditions he says officers continue to work under.

“Perry came in at a terrible time — the DOC has been trying to recover from the administrations that ran things before him,” he said. “Previous commissioners and former-Governor Jack Markell ran things into the ground, stripped the department of its resources and put us in a place where overtime and understaffing were completely unsustainable. We believe Perry did the best he could to lead us through a difficult time and at least attempted to start us down a path toward progress.”

However, Mr. Klopp sees the DOC’s current systemic ills as “crippling” and “not getting better fast enough.”

“They’ve made some progress when it comes to training and recruitment, but things are moving forward way too slow,” he said. “We need big changes still. We’re on course again to have another record-breaking year in terms of overtime spending. It’s unacceptable.”

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