DOC considers moving ‘several hundred’ inmates out of state

DOVER — Delaware’s Department of Corrections confirmed Tuesday that an “exploratory idea” would involve moving inmates out of state in order to temporarily close the Maximum Housing Unit (MHU) building at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell noted the proposed change could ease the pressure on the understaffed prison.

“We’re looking at every possible option to reduce overtime and/or eliminate the freezing of staff,” she said.

Gov. John Carney said last month that reducing mandatory overtime for an overworked and understaffed team of correctional officers remained his and the DOC’s top priority in the wake of the Feb. 1 2017 inmate uprising at Vaughn prison that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

“Our top priority at the DOC is making sure officers are safe when they report to work,” said Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman for the Governor’s office. “We have worked with COAD to approve significant raises for officers and bonuses to improve recruitment.

“Another avenue for reducing mandatory overtime in our prison system is to reduce our prison population. We are considering all options that will make our facilities safer for officers and inmates.”

Noting that plans have yet to be finalized, Ms. Gravell said the DOC is currently exploring the related costs and savings of the proposal — costs being a per inmate charge imposed by a state agreeing to take custody of Delaware’s inmates and savings being the operating costs of running MHU.

Neither the DOC or Governor’s Office shared specifics of the proposal.

As of last month, the DOC reported carrying 227 vacant correctional officer positions statewide. However, a recently released staffing analysis at Vaughn prison recommended adding 137 more officers — bringing the total vacancy number up to 364.

Costly and limiting

Although much in favor of reducing overtime and staff “freezing” in the prisons, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, says this should be done by fully staffing the prisons rather than moving inmates out of state.

“I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea because of course I want our officers to be safe, but it would be incredibly expensive and somewhat reduce our maximum security housing capabilities at Vaughn if we closed down the MHU,” he said. “We’d still have the SHU (Special Housing Unit), but that’s already mostly full.”

Mr. Klopp said the plan currently being considered would require transitioning the care of several hundred inmates to a neighboring state.

“I don’t know that these are the numbers, but if we were to hypothetically send 300 inmates out of state and they cost around $60,000 per year for another state to take — maybe more if they are max security inmates — that’d be $18 million per year,” he added. “That’s crazy.”

Mr. Klopp maintains that the “core issue” is correctional officers’ low starting salary — now $43,000 per year plus a $3,000 sign on bonus. A higher salary would lead to more applicants and, ultimately, to a fully staffed prison with a reduced need for overtime shifts.

“The DOC and governor’s recruitment efforts, although well-meaning, have been unsuccessful,” said Mr. Klopp. “We currently have 34 more correctional officers working than we did in April of 2017. That’s just not enough.”

Though the number of vacant positions repeated by the DOC is around 360, Mr. Klopp believes that more than 450 vacancies is more accurate.

“Fifty-two cadets started in the most recent DOC academy class and thats already down to 42 due to burnout,” he said. “Those cadets won’t even graduate until late October. That’s just enough.

“Salaries need to be raised so more qualified applicants are drawn to these positions.”

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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