DOC, DelTech team up for correctional officers’ certificate program

Chairperson for Criminal Justice and Homeland Security, Nicole Shuler-Geer, right, talks with DOC student Ashley Wattley-Cross at DelTech. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead, Gov. John Carney, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) have been trying desperately to fill more than 200 vacant correctional officer positions in the state.

The staffing shortage has been a frequent concern of advocates and policy makers of all stripes. The governor has unveiled strategies to address it, most notably an increase in starting salary for the position from $35,000 to $40,000. Next financial year, it’s set to rise again to $43,000.

However, attracting applicants is only half the battle — the DOC and COAD have expressed the need for a more well-educated and prepared workforce.
Applicants like Ashley Wattley-Cross are answering that call.

The 26-year-old New York City native had just completed her associate’s degree in criminal justice at Delaware Technical Community College when she heard about the new Correctional Officer Certificate program starting this semester. Since she had already completed most of the required coursework and applied with the DOC, she leapt at the opportunity.

“I come from a long line of corrections employees. Both my mom and my dad were correction employees and I have more family still working for the DOC in New York,” said Ms. Wattley-Cross. “I’ve been exposed to that line of work all my life and it comes naturally to me.”

Ms. Wattley-Cross expects to be enrolled in the DOC’s Correctional Employee Initial Training academy in the early part of 2018, but she’s also transferring into Wilmington University to complete a Bachelor’s in criminal justice. An agreement with Deltech will allow her to transfer in as a junior.

However, she says the new certification — a distinction for which she’s likely to be the first recipient — will be dropping her into correctional officer life with both a leg up in training and preferential applicant status with the DOC.

What does the program offer?

The certificate program is the brainchild of Nicole Shuler-Geer, Department chair of Criminal Justice/Homeland Security at Deltech, who’s been trying to get it off the ground for the past several years. Before starting her work at Deltech in 2008, she worked for the DOC for 10 years as a probation officer and trainer at the DOC academy.

She started discussions with the DOC a few years ago on how to coordinate their efforts and form a “partnership” to run the certificate program.

“We’ve had many discussions with former commissioner Robert Coupe and current commissioner Perry Phelps on how to best match up curriculum hour-for-hour,” Ms. Shuler-Geer said. “I’ve done a lot of training at their academy and did emergency preparedness trainings at all the institutions — I helped write much of their curriculum, so I have a deep understanding of what sort of training and skill set they are looking for.”

She also noted the DOC is currently in the process of making a few adjustments to their correctional officer qualification criteria.

“They are in the process of redesigning the hiring specs,” she said. “It’s not going to be as easy to get hired. They are trying to attract a more qualified workforce.”

It could be said that this may narrow the applicant pool at a time when it’s crucial to bring in new recruits. However, Ms. Shuler-Geer hopes that the certificate course will help raise the visibility of the correctional officer position, and interest more recent high school graduates entering college to consider the career more seriously.

“I hope more people realize that it’s actually a good opportunity for them as a career, not just a job,” she said. “If you can come into it with some education and that can be applicable to a degree, it’ll help students climb the career ladder.”

The courses in the program, shared with other criminal justice degrees, focus on communication, interviewing and counseling, sociology, crisis intervention and prevention, criminal justice procedure and deescalation techniques. Certificate holders will be versed in some of the most crucial skills for a correctional officer to possess, Ms. Shuler-Geer added.

“For the certificate, students take six courses, and that gets them an advanced standing for hire with the DOC,” she said. “On their entrance test, they’ll get 10 points added automatically to their score. After they are hired, they go through the DOC’s academy, then come back and give me their training certificate which will get them 13 more credits because the academy’s training matches up to our curriculum. Then, they are more than halfway toward completing their degree as well.”

Ms. Shuler-Geer says the goal is to provide the DOC with more qualified applicants and supply crucial training to would-be correctional officers that will give them a better understanding of the job requirements and, hopefully, jump start a career and continuing education in criminal justice.

Ms. Wattley-Cross is keenly aware of the dangers of the job, the recent inmate uprising and the current staffing shortage. She said that much of her family came down, in uniform, from New York during Lt. Floyd’s memorial in a show of solidarity. With her skills and background, the self-described “tough cookie” says she’s ready for service. If she had her choice, after completing the academy, she’d like to be a correctional officer at JTVCC.

“I’m tough,” she said. “I can handle anything thrown my way.”

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

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