Former Biden aide picked to lead DOC

DOVER — Gov. John Carney said Tuesday he will nominate Claire DeMatteis as commissioner of the Delaware Department of Correction.

If confirmed she will fill the post vacated by Perry Phelps, who announced his retirement last month.

Ms. DeMatteis, a former senior counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, would be the first woman to be commissioner of the Correction Department.

The nomination requires approval by the Delaware Senate, which is expected to consider the governor’s recommendation this month.

Mr. Phelps will officially retire on July 15.

“For much of the last two years, Claire has worked side-by-side with Commissioner Phelps to lead reform efforts at the Department of Correction — to make our facilities safer, to invest in new equipment and training, and to recruit correctional officers to do one of the toughest jobs in state government,” Gov. Carney said in a statement.

“Over three decades of experience in government and the private sector, Claire has worked closely with community leaders, legislators and law enforcement officials and has earned their respect and trust. I have full confidence that Claire’s experience and leadership qualities will serve our state well at the Department of Correction. I look forward to the Senate considering her nomination.”

Not new to DOC administration, Ms. DeMatteis was tasked by Gov. Carney to spearhead reform in the state’s prisons in July 2017 after a deadly riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center brought the department’s understaffing and maligned prison culture issues into focus.

In the wake of the Feb. 1 riot, Gov. Carney ordered an independent review to examine conditions at the prison leading up to the incident and make recommendations to address them.

The review produced a 159-page report with 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s “systemic” ills.

Spending more than a year pushing the proposed reforms in the DOC, Ms. DeMatteis and DOC administration claimed progress was made on the majority of them with the exception of a reduction in mandatory overtime for an overworked and understaffed team of correctional officers — purported to be the department’s biggest issue.

The Governor’s Office said his plan has included a 22 percent increase in starting pay for correctional officers; investments in new technology, equipment and training; the creation of a Labor-Management Committee to recruit more officers and decrease mandatory overtime; and renewed efforts to help inmates successfully re-enter their communities.

Currently, Ms. DeMatteis is serving as special assistant coordinating re-entry initiatives across six state agencies, including the DOC, Education, Labor and Health and Social Services.

“If confirmed by the State Senate, I look forward to working with the women and men of the Delaware Department of Correction to continue to strengthen safety and security, officer recruitment and retention, and programming and services for inmates, as well as implement a coordinated path of services from an offender’s entry into prison through release back into our communities,” Ms. DeMatteis said in a statement.

“It would be an honor to lead the state’s largest law enforcement agency of dedicated correctional officers and probation and parole officers.”

From 2008-2016, Ms. DeMatteis served as General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer and Chief Privacy Officer of two multi-billion dollar corporations.

Previously, she spent four years at Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, a Mid-Atlantic law firm with offices in Wilmington. She was partner in charge of the firm’s Delaware office from 2007-2008.

During her decade working as senior counsel for then-Sen. Biden, from 1994-2004, she served as a member of a senior team on issues involving law enforcement, women’s rights, civil rights and constitutional matters. She helped guide campaign strategy, managed constituent communications and drafted legislation.

Most recently, Ms. DeMatteis served in a senior role at the Delaware Department of Labor, where she helped navigate a resolution to the recent data breach at the department, keeping the public apprised of developments. She began her career working in the Delaware State Senate from 1984-1987 as a page and calendar clerk. She has served state elected officials from both parties, including as legal assistant to then-Gov. Mike Castle.

Ms. DeMatteis earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Delaware, and holds a law degree from Widener University Delaware Law School.

Reaction to the nomination
Correctional Officers Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp, who’s worked closely with Ms. DeMatteis during her time as special assistant, thinks she’ll make a “great” commissioner.

“There isn’t a more important job right now than DOC commissioner,” he said on Tuesday. “I have complete faith in and support the nomination of Claire DeMatteis. She’s smart, hard working and practical. There is no doubt in my mind that Governor Carney got this one right.”

DOC staff working outside the prisons have high hopes too. Todd Mumford, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police Probation/Parole Lodge 10, says his fellow officers have pressing needs that have gone unaddressed.

“I look forward to working with her,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to work together to increase the visibility of probation and parole as a integral part of the criminal justice system. Part of that will be continuing to work toward more competitive salary and benefits plans as well as providing training and equipment that are representative of a professional law enforcement agency.” 

For her part, Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, the new chairperson of the House Corrections Committee, says she’s looking forward to working with Ms. DeMatteis if she’s confirmed.

“It’s good to see that she has some experience working in the DOC specifically with addressing some of the systemic issues,” she said. “But it’s also great that she’s coming from outside the department and can offer a fresh voice with fresh ideas and new perspective. She’ll have to learning everything about the department from the bottom us which will be great — I think she’ll do a really good job.”

The most pressing issues Ms. DeMatteis will face going into the department are persistent safety concerns and providing crucial services, said Rep. Minor-Brown.

“We need to make sure we’re abiding by Delaware DOC’s mission,” she added. “We need to ensure that we have a safe environment, for both the inmates and prison staff, and make sure that we’re delivering quality healthcare in our prisons. There is also a lot we have to do to make sure our correctional system keeps its focus on rehabilitation — these are all priorities.”

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