DOC to move 330 inmates to Pennsylvania prisons

DOVER — Delaware will move up to 330 inmates to Pennsylvania prisons over the next several months in an effort to reduce the demand for overtime hours on its stressed correctional officer population, the Delaware Department of Correction announced on Wednesday. According to DOC administration, they’ve entered into a two-year agreement with Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC).

“A reduction in officer overtime will improve work life balance for staff, improve security in Delaware correctional facilities and result in a decrease in operating costs,” reads a press release circulated on Wednesday.

Inmates selected to be transferred are not engaged in active litigation and have more than five years remaining on their sentence, noted DOC leadership. Medical and mental health treatment, education and other services will continue to be available to the relocated inmates. The inmates will return to Delaware to complete their sentences when the correctional officer vacancy rate is projected to be significantly lower.

According to the DOC, there are currently 237 correctional officer vacancies statewide. Recent departmental staffing studies and the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware’s (COAD) assessment of overtime hours both suggest that number is significantly higher.

“We remain focused on improving safety for correctional officers and inmates in all of Delaware’s correctional facilities,” DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said in a press release. “This new agreement with the PADOC is designed as a temporary measure to help us reduce mandatory overtime for correctional officers, which was a critical recommendation of the Independent Review team commissioned by Governor (John) Carney. Reducing mandatory overtime will provide relief for Delaware’s correctional officers, and help make our facilities safer for officers and inmates.”

The DOC administration claims to have made “great strides” recently to reduce the number of correctional officer position vacancies by: increasing correctional officer salaries, offering $1,000 bonuses to current staff who refer officers who are successfully hired, providing $3,000 signing bonuses to cadets and engaging in various methods of recruitment and advertisement.

DOC leadership says that since the implementation of the signing bonus and referral program in April, DOC Human Resources has received 2,126 applications and they’ve hired 130 cadets since the salary increase became effective in July 2018.

As part of the contract with PADOC, DOC leadership says it will pay $123 per inmate per day to the state of Pennsylvania.

Calling the move a “win-win,” DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell noted that shipping inmates to Pennsylvania facilities will cost Delaware taxpayers $8 less per inmate per day than it currently does to house them. Recognizing the strain the move may put on families or friends wanting to regularly visit inmates, she says an effort has been made to select inmates from New Castle County and have them relocated to prisons geographically close to the state line to reduce the inconvenience of visitation.

Ms. Gravell also noted that DOC leadership hoped the move would clear up enough room specifically at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center — the site of a deadly inmate riot last year — for them to temporarily close down one of the Maximum Housing Unit buildings. Doing so would reduce the need for correctional officer man hours at the facility.

Far less optimistic about the new strategy, COAD president Geoff Klopp sees the need for it, but says that the union worries about reducing the number of higher security cells at Vaughn.

“C Building (the site of last year’s riot) is already down and if they shut down MHU, that’s hundreds of secure beds that the facility won’t have any more,” he said. “That constrains staff’s ability to reclassify and quickly place inmates with disciplinary issues in the facility. We’ve expressed concerns about the safety of the facility, but no one wants to listen to us.”

Also, Mr. Klopp expressed concern about the sustainability of the move — saying that it’s more a product of the DOC’s failure to restaff its prison rather than a temporary measure to get some wiggle room.

“We’ve only been able to retain 45 new officers in the last 18 months,” he said. “I understand the need to do this, but it’s because they’ve failed to hire the needed number of new officers. Between retirements and the burnout rate we need to hire over 400 new officers in the next four years. This problem isn’t going away.”

Mr. Klopp did concede that closing an MHU building would reduce overtime hours — something he agrees is badly needed.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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