DOC touts reform efforts, staffing plans in budget hearing

DOVER — The Delaware Department of Correction hopes to cut its correctional officer vacancies to about 40 by the end of next year, the lowest level in at least a decade.

Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis, who was confirmed to the post in June, offered an overview of the agency Thursday in its preliminary budget hearing. Speaking to officials from the Office of Management and Budget, Ms. DeMatteis said the agency is making progress in improving the environment and staffing levels.

Claire DeMatteis

The Department of Correction, which has been understaffed for years, entered the spotlight in February 2017 after an inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center left one guard dead. In the aftermath, advocates stumped for higher salaries and better conditions in the state’s prisons, while decision-makers pledged to make changes to prevent another rebellion.

Counting a class of 21 cadets who will graduate today as correctional officers, the agency currently has 145 unfilled positions, Ms. DeMatteis said — a vacancy rate of about 10 percent.

According to her, the department has gained 94 rank and file correctional officers since July 1, 2018.

About 200 applications are submitted to the state monthly, she said, although that’s a fraction of what it was just five years ago.
November 2014 saw more than 1,400 applications sent in, with almost 750 coming the following November. One year later — eight months after the riot — it was down to about 300.

Because the numbers plummeted well before the uprising, Ms. DeMatteis attributed the drop to a stronger economy giving people more opportunities for employment.

“When I saw that, I was like, why can’t we go back to those years?” she said.

Since the uprising, the state has raised starting salaries for COs from about $35,200 to $43,000. The job remains unappealing for some, however, due to long hours and the stress that comes with it.

But many feel steps forward are being made — including Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp, who praised state officials Thursday for their work.

The department’s budget for the current year totals about $343 million, up by $48 million from three years ago.

For the fiscal year starting July 1, Ms. DeMatteis requested an additional $9.7 million in operating funds. Those needs, she told budget officials, can largely be classified one of six ways: safety, equipment, technology, offender re-entry support, staffing levels and staff training.

She is also seeking $58.4 million in capital funding, which would represent an increase of more than 400 percent over the current year. Those dollars would primarily go to maintaining or adding to various department facilities, as well as upgrading radios, sprinklers and security cameras.

Ms. DeMatteis was proud to note the state hopes to get Vaughn accredited by the American Correctional Association soon. It is currently the only one of the state’s prisons that does not have that designation.

“It is the gold standard for a correctional facility,” she said of being accredited. “It is the gold standard. It doesn’t give you any money, it doesn’t do anything other than tell the public” the prison has received a sterling grade.

Thursday marked the final day of preliminary budget hearings. Gov. John Carney will unveil his spending recommendations in two months, which lawmakers will use as a base as they craft a plan. The General Assembly, which reconvenes in January, has until the end of June to approve a budget.

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