DOC touts updated training regimen success

Professor Ray Carr, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Wilmington University, teaches a Department of Correction cadet class in Dover last week. Dr. Carr’s six-hour course, dubbed Communication Skills and Situational Awareness, is part of the new training program rolled out in the wake of the Feb. 1, 2017, inmate uprising that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Using a combination of lecture, presentation and role playing, Delaware Department of Correction cadets were drilled Tuesday on how to effectively communicate in a complex prison environment.

Emblematic of a common prison scenario, cadets assumed the roles of a correctional officer and “non-compliant” inmate refusing to undress and be searched.

“You’re not searching me, man — I’m tired of it,” said a cadet during the exercise. “I’m not taking off my clothes and getting searched. There’s no reason for it and I’m just not doing it. Period.”

Fumbling at first, the cadet acting as a correctional officer struggled to defuse the mock issue and motivate his subject to comply.

Professor Ray Carr, the training’s designer and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Wilmington University, said putting cadets through the exercises are crucial to building their understanding of confrontations in the prison.

“These situations happen again and again and again. That’s why we’re pushing active listening. If you have someone persistently uncooperative, you need to be able to set them straight,” said Dr. Carr.

“These role-playing groups are how we test the knowledge the cadets have picked up in training. Some will struggle — usually the first few — but as we get through a number of exercises, everyone starts to improve and they get better from watching one another. I even tell them to go home and practice on their families. These communication skill aren’t just useful at work.”

Dr. Carr’s six-hour course, dubbed Communication Skills and Situational Awareness, is part of the new training program rolled out in the wake of the Feb. 1, 2017, inmate uprising that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead. The independent review Gov. John Carney commissioned to examine the causes of the incident devoted an entire chapter in its 159-page report to the importance of upgrading the DOC’s training.

“Correctional officers must have adequate security skills,” reads the independent review.

Department of Correction cadets listen during last week’s class in Dover. DOC officials feel the training sessions are having an effect. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“They must also have strong interpersonal skills and the capacity to understand various cultural aspects of diverse offenders. They must also know how to deescalate volatile situations. This has not been the case at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.”

After receiving the first draft of the report, Gov. Carney appointed Claire DeMatteis as a special assistant last year to spearhead prison reform based on the report’s recommendations.

“Securing the trainings was at the top of our list along with installing cameras in the facilities,” she said last week. “Literally within the first week of starting the process, we asked for proposals from three organizations for trainings and set up a committee with criteria to judge the proposals.”

Wilmington University’s proposal, prepared by Dr. Carr, Dr. Gregory Warren and Dr. Jim Warwick, was accepted and retraining of all the DOC’s officers started in January, said Ms. DeMatteis. Additionally, a specially designed eight-hour course called 21st Century Leadership was implemented with the intention of improving the management skills of officers in supervisory roles.

According to DOC data, to date, 1,105 correctional officers have been through the six-hour Communication Skills and Situational Awareness course and 434 officers have been through the 21st Century Leadership course. To be at 100 percent, 68 more correctional officers require the communication training and 83 require leadership training.

Upon completion of her duties as special assistant with DOC on July 31, Ms. DeMatteis oversaw the courses integrated into the training program permanently. All incoming cadets will receive the communication course during their standard academy training and one leadership course will be offered in the fall and spring every year to newly promoted correctional officers.

Communication course

Dr. Carr brings 36 years of law enforcement experience — 26 of those as an FBI agent — into training DOC officers. The most important skills they leave with are “how to listen,” said Dr. Carr.

“Research shows the better communicator you are, the happier you are and the better you perform your job,” he said. “We’re also working in a lot of situational awareness and skills to effectively resolve conflict. We run through a process specifically designed to change behavior using empathy, trust and influence.”

During last week’s class, Dr. Carr lectured cadets at length on reading inmates’ cultural and emotional cues to best gauge their responses to potential confrontations. Of particular importance to Dr. Carr was getting cadets to draw the distinction between issues that can be resolved effectively with “active listening” and understanding versus those that require the threat of punitive measures.

For cadets, the program is a primer for the types of scenarios they’ll be up against in the facilities and for existing officer. It’s a refresher that offers new strategies, said Ms. DeMatteis.

“They’re targeting skills like deescalation, communication, interpersonal skills and risk management skills,” she said.

“Instinctively, officers know what they have to do and how to act, but the ability to take them out of the facilities for a day and put them in a room with experienced law enforcement professionals reinforces and strengthens those important skill sets. When they go back to work, these ideas are fresh in their minds when they encounter situations.”

Leadership course

Dr. Warren, who chairs the Wilmington University Masters of Administration of Justice program, has been running law enforcement leadership trainings since 1993. An instructor at the university for a decade, the retired Delaware State Police captain was responsible for developing and implementing the state police’s leadership training as well.

Correctional officers who receive his training are more adept at navigating a large law enforcement organization’s chain of command while managing those under their supervision, said Dr. Warren.

“Some of the more relevant things we cover are strategic planning — the need to look into the future and try to predict what your needs will be both as a leader and as part of a large organization,” he said.

“We go into the organization itself and discuss what it’s like to work as part of a government entity because it has certain characteristics. The leadership skills we push focus on are first-line supervision, ability to manage and most importantly, ability to lead.”

Taken together, Ms. DeMatteis feels that both trainings will help strengthen inter-facility lines of communication — something the independent review noted as a serious deficiency, especially at Vaughn prison. Long term, she believes the new skills are an important part of making Delaware’s prisons safer.

“These trainings are a part of how the DOC will improve the culture at James T. Vaughn and its other correctional facilities,” she said. “They aren’t a magic cure, but they’re one piece of the overall plan to make the facilities more positive, proactive and safer for the officers and the inmates.”

DOC administration feels the trainings are already having an effect.

“The DOC is committed to providing meaningful, practical training to our officers to improve the culture of our facilities as well as create well-rounded staff and supervisors,” said Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead. “The officers leave the training with enhanced communication skills and a greater ability to lead and mentor junior staff and the inmates in our custody.”

Outstanding concerns

Although a frequent critic of the state’s prison reforms, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said both personally and through the feedback of the union, the trainings are effective and useful.

“I sat in on both the courses and they’re honestly some of the best I’ve ever taken,” he said. “I’ve heard from a lot of our officers as well that have said the trainings were engaging and they provided tools they can actually use on the job every day.”

While the new trainings may be turning out higher-caliber cadets from the academy, Mr. Klopp echoes the same concern he’s been driving at for several years: understaffing.

DOC is currently reporting over 200 vacant correctional officer positions statewide, but a staffing analysis at Vaughn prison released earlier this year recommended adding 137 more officers at that facility alone. Mr. Klopp often notes that by calculating the overtime burden, he expects the “actual vacancy rate” to be in excess of 500 positions.

DOC spent $22 million on overtime pay during fiscal year 2017, and closed out FY2018 with a tab of nearly $31 million — an over 40 percent increase for the government agency already spending the largest proportion of the state’s overtime dollars by far.

However, DOC claims measures such as increasing the position’s starting salary to $43,000, introducing sign-on and referral bonuses and hiring recruiters are beginning to bear fruit in terms of higher average academy enrollment.

At the very least, the total correctional officer population has trended in the right direction so far in 2018, unlike last year.

According to DOC, 267 correctional officers separated from the department in 2017 and 157 were hired — a net loss of 110. Since January, 145 correctional officers were hired and 105 correctional officers separated from the department — a net gain of 40. Whether this is enough to start dialing back the department’s onerous overtime burden remains to be seen.

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

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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