Families demand answers about prisoners’ transfers

DOVER — Emotions ran high Friday as family members of Delaware inmates urged and begged officials with the Department of Correction to provide more answers about recent prisoner transfers.

In November, the state announced it would be moving up to 330 inmates to Pennsylvania correctional facilities to reduce overtime levels among correctional officers and improve conditions in the prisons.

Friday, dozens of people, mostly immediate family members of inmates, gathered in Wilmington to hear from correction officials in a forum hosted by the Campaign for Smart Justice Delaware and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.

Monday, meanwhile, Gov. John Carney held a conference call with legislators and correction officials in which he said “mischaracterization” surrounds the transfer, telling lawmakers it is being done to reduce overtime and in turn improve both officer and inmate safety and morale.

Attending the Friday forum on behalf of the state were Bureau of Prisons Chief Steven Wesley and Deputy Chief Shane Troxler. Many of their answers were not well-received by participants, who accused the agency of moving inmates as retaliation for the deadly riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in February 2017 or simply to save money.

The two representatives of the Department of Correction admitted they were not the decision-makers and could not adequately respond to every question but would try to provide what answers they could and get back to attendees on other questions.

Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps was not available, according to Mr. Wesley.

“What I’m hearing over and over again is there’s not enough knowing and we need to know,” Kerri Evelyn Harris said.

By reducing the prison population in Delaware, officials have said, the shortage of correctional officers will be less impactful. Additionally, according to Mr. Wesley, the state plans to convert the Central Violation of Probation Center near Vaughn to a drug treatment center for criminal offenders, capable of holding about 300.

The hope, he said, is to bring inmates back after the two-year contract is up and the Central Violation of Probation Center has been converted.

The contract can be extended for up to three years,

Of the 330 inmates who will be moved, 152 have already being transferred to Pennsylvania facilities. Inmates will first be taken to the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, just a few miles from Harrisburg, and may be transferred elsewhere after a few months.

Department of Correction spokeswoman Jayme Gravell wrote in an email Delaware has asked Pennsylvania officials “to use facilities closest to Delaware.”

The nearest prisons in Pennsylvania are in Skippack Township and Chester.

Inmates who have major medical conditions, are at least 60 years old, have remaining sentences of less than five years, were sentenced under Pre-Truth in Sentencing guidelines or have pending litigation will not be transferred, according to the agency.

Delaware officials said about 600 inmates (some of whom have already been moved) meet the criteria.

The state will pay Pennsylvania $123 per inmate per day, $8 less than it costs here.

Ms. Gravell said the state will not notify the family members of an inmate after he has been moved, but “inmates will have access to a phone call within 24 hours.”

Ongoing issues

Delaware’s correctional system has been in the spotlight since inmates in Vaughn’s C Building took several guards hostage on Feb. 1, 2017. One correctional officer, Lt. Steven Floyd, was found dead after the siege ended the next day.

The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware has complained for years about understaffing forcing many officers to work far more than 40 hours a week, and although the state has raised salaries from about $35,200 to $43,000 over the past 18 months, plenty of vacancies remain.

As of Monday, there were 217 open positions — a vacancy rate of 11 percent.

It may even be far greater, with the union’s president, Geoff Klopp, arguing a staffing study conducted by the agency indicates more than 400 additional officers are needed.

Delaware spent almost $31 million on correctional officer overtime for the fiscal year ended June 30, up from $22 million the year before.

Reducing overtime remains the only one of the 41 main recommendations made by an independent review team that has not been met.

A July report estimated that goal might not be complete until 2020.

“Until we reach a target vacancy rate, we have a two-part strategy” of converting the Central Violation of Probation Center and shifting inmates, Mr. Wesley said.

His best attempts to explain the move weren’t enough for some attendees, with several parents of inmates getting emotional as they described the ordeals their families have been through.

Sharon Osborn said the move has prevented her from talking to her son regularly, and because of health concerns she cannot make the drive up to visit him for Christmas.

“Bring my child back. I’m begging you, please, bring my child back,” she said, practically in tears.

For security reasons, inmates are not notified of their move until the day of. While that’s not new — prisoner transfers are considered one of the most dangerous parts of the job for correctional officers, according to Mr. Wesley — it has left many inmates and their families worried and frustrated.

Some questioned if the selection criteria could be changed to prioritize inmates who don’t mind being moved out of state, and a few shared stories of their family members in jail not receiving the right medical care. Tales of abuse and neglect in the wake of the Vaughn riot were also common.

One man accused the state of making the decision just to save money, while another woman claimed her son was wrongly sent to Connecticut despite his severe Crohn’s disease.

Former state Rep. J.J. Johnson, an advocate of criminal justice and prison reform, said in November when the move was announced the state should be focusing on fixing its own issues rather than sending inmates to Pennsylvania. He expressed apprehension about whether Delaware authorities could guarantee inmates would receive the proper rehabilitative services and if family members would still be able to visit their loved ones regularly.

The administration hopes intensified recruiting efforts can help boost staffing levels, in turn creating a better environment for all inside Delaware prisons.

The governor’s office did not respond to a query Monday asking if the transfer was the governor’s idea, as some, such as Wilmington City Councilman Sam Guy on Friday, have alleged.

The contract with Pennsylvania allows Delaware to inspect the facilities at any point, although the state has not yet taken advantage of that provision.

Several current and former elected officials were present at Friday’s meeting, and some of them had harsh words for the state. Mr. Guy questioned if it was legal to imprison people in different states than where they committed crimes, and New Castle County Councilman Jea Street noted rumors were swirling the transfer was in response to a fall lawsuit alleging “inhumane conditions” at Vaughn. Mr. Wesley denied the claim, saying the move had been in the works for a while.

Because Delaware is part of a multistate pact, it regularly receives inmates from and sends offenders to other states. In 1998, the First State shipped 300 inmates to Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia to reduce overcrowding while the state expanded the Sussex Correctional Institution.

Although Delaware’s prison population has declined over the past few years, some people believe the state could be proactively working to let pretrial detainees and certain low-level offenders out of jail, a subject raised by legislators on the call with the executive branch Monday.

At the meeting Friday, Rachelle Wilson asked if the governor could call in the Delaware National Guard temporarily to assist COs rather than taking inmates, such as her son, to facilities several hours away.

“We want to know where our children are, we want to talk to them and we want you to have compassion as if our children were yours,” she said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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