Governor’s special assistant tackles prison reform: Claire DeMatteis says effort is moving at ‘lightning speed’

Claire DeMatteis is the new DOC special assistant. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Wednesday will mark the third month special assistant Claire DeMatteis has been on the job.

The 52-year-old Wilmingtonian was tasked by Gov. John Carney to spearhead reform in the state’s Department of Correction (DOC).

In the wake of the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) near Smyrna that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, 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, conducted by former Family Court Judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III, produced a 159-page report with 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s “systemic” ills.

According to the review, these range from communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers to chronic under-staffing and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners. This final report hit Gov. Carney’s desk in early September.

Back in 2005, then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner received an independent review of her own after an earlier 2004 incident, also at JTVCC. The incident involved an inmate, Scott Miller, taking a counselor hostage and raping her before he was shot and killed.

The recommendations in that review share striking similarities to Gov. Carney’s review. Gov. Minner and the former DOC administrations have been criticized by the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) and other advocacy groups for ignoring that earlier review.

Gov. Minner, along with former Gov. Jack Markell, DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps and three former commissioners, state budget director Michael Jackson and his predecessors are currently named as defendants in a lawsuit brought by the estate of Lt. Floyd and five other correctional officers victimized in the Feb. 1 incident.

The defendants stand accused of neglecting safety in state prisons for more than a decade.

The question on the lips of many critics of the current administration is: What will be different this time around?

Gov. Carney has made several changes — to correctional officer starting salaries to attract more applicants and helped provide funding for cameras and equipment for JTVCC. However, Ms. DeMatteis says one big difference between the current administration and Gov. Minner’s was her appointment.

The new DOC Special Assistant Claire DeMatteis, center, talks with Bureau Chief of Administration Services, Jennifer Biddle, left, and Warden Timothy Radcliffe. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“One of Gov. Carney’s biggest priorities is improving prison conditions,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “Nothing focuses an administration on what has to be done quite like a crisis.

“Before, there was just a report. It was certainly well intentioned, but the governor (Minner) didn’t take that extra step that Gov. Carney has by appointing someone and saying specifically: ‘it is entirely your job for the next year to make sure these recommendations get implemented.’”

During her decade working as senior counsel for then-Sen. Joe Biden from 1994-2004, Ms. DeMatteis served as a member of a senior team on issues involving law enforcement, foreign policy and constitutional matters. She helped guide campaign strategy, managed constituent communications and drafted legislation. Most recently, she served in a senior role at the Delaware Department of Labor.

What’s been accomplished?

Ms. DeMatteis’ role as a special assistant to the governor at the DOC is a temporary one. She is to ensure that the independent review’s recommendations are made at the DOC and provide two public reports — one at the six-month mark and another at a year — on how the implementation process has progressed.

She claims that the DOC has already been moving at “lightning speed.”

“The first order of business was equipping Vaughn with cameras,” she said. “That had been out there the longest in terms of recommendations. There are a few cameras there already, but there are more at Sussex Correctional Institution and Howard R. Young Correctional Institution. We’ve purchased them, and they will be installed starting the first week of November.”

Also, $2.2 million was approved by Gov. Carney to be invested in JTVCC’s camera upgrades, according to Ms. DeMatteis. She said the DOC has purchased hundreds of cameras and will go building by building over the next 15 to 17 months ensuring that the entire institution gets coverage. Many will also be installed on the exterior, per the review’s recommendation.

Embedded at the DOC’s headquarters in Dover, Ms. DeMatteis says she’s been able to add value to the implementation process by helping officials cut “bureaucratic red tape” and fast-track necessary upgrades.

“It wasn’t just cameras that were needed, you have to have all the switches, wiring and other technology that goes with them,” she said. “It’s a long process to get it all done correctly, but we set it as a huge priority.”

The $1.3 million investment Gov. Carney had set aside for equipment upgrades has also been spent, she said.

“Thirty-five percent of it was spent on equipment for the officers such as ballistic vests for the Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT), radios and pepper spray,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “Ten percent was spent on sending staff members to basic skills training and retraining, and the rest was spend on upgrading the entire department from .38-caliber guns to .40-caliber. The .38s were outdated, difficult to get ammunition for and hard to get officers re-qualified on.”

Equipment purchases also included replacing metal foot lockers in the institution that were identified as a threat, with plastic ones. During the Feb. 1 uprising, the old metal lockers were filled with water and used to barricade building C — the site of the hostage incident — against entry.

Current focus

Digesting the independent review, Ms. DeMatteis broke down the recommendations into three basic categories in order of importance:

• Strengthening training and improving safety

• Improving recruitment and retention of correctional officers

• Bringing the DOC in line with “21st Century” corrections

To address training, Ms. DeMatteis said that the DOC is in the process of updating their training academy curriculum and have brought on two retired state police officers to refocus parts of the program.

“The two officers were involved in the state police training academy and they’re there to help reemphasize law enforcement drill instruction,” she said. “We want our cadets to understand the dangers of the job, the importance of safety and be prepared to enter that environment. We also want to get our existing correctional officers the additional training they want and need, such as deescalation techniques, conflict resolution skills, cultural awareness and communication skills.”

A newly minted correctional officer certificate program being offered at Delaware Technical Community College will also bring more qualified applicants to the DOC, Ms. DeMatteis hopes. The certificate is the product of a partnership between the DOC and Deltech that started this semester. After completing six college courses, certificate holders will get preferential hiring status at the DOC in the form of 10 added points to their entrance exam. After they get hired and complete the DOC’s academy training, the can obtain an extra 13 college credits toward a degree from Deltech.

“It’s a huge part of our retention and recruitment plan,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “It offers great in-depth training and college credit. It’s done wonders to spark interest and inquires.”

The DOC will also be rolling out a plan to send their higher ranking correctional officers for additional training.

“Sergeants and above — about 400 officers — will get enhanced leadership training,” she said. “They’ll be getting trained in supervisory and management skills.”

The governor-established Labor Management Committee, peopled by COAD and DOC representatives, is at work building a career ladder that Ms. DeMatteis said will also help fill positions.

“Implementing a career ladder will define how a first-year correctional officer can rise through the ranks,” she said. “It’s not well defined right now — the state police have a good one, and so do the Wilmington and New Castle police.”

The DOC has hired two new recruiters that Ms. DeMatteis says have gotten more “creative” in attracting correctional officer candidates.

“They’ve been successful in holding job fairs and things like that,” she said. “We’re trying to be more active with recruiting rather than just posting an small ad in the paper. We need to expand our reach.”

Acknowledging the staff-shortage is a complicated issue, Ms. DeMatteis said it won’t be solved in just a year. In early September the DOC reported there were 264 vacant correctional officer positions. The COAD has said that they lose about 10 officers per month to “burnout” and retirement, and there are only just over 20 cadets in the current academy class that will complete their training by the end of the year.

“I’m not going to sugar coat this: We have a long way to go with filling vacancies and getting ahead of the upcoming retirements,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “It’s going to be a serious challenge, but everyone is focused on it.”

Communication breakdown

Another significant item on the independent review was lack of communication and poor prison “culture.” Ms. DeMatteis says this has two layers: Relationships between correctional officers and inmates and relationships between correctional officers and the DOC administration.

The review noted that Lt. Floyd had made a request that “over five” problem inmates be moved a mere 10 days before the uprising on Feb. 1. The review said if the request had “been taken more seriously and carried out, the incident and the resulting death may not have occurred.”

Repairing the prison culture is something Ms. DeMatteis also says is a longterm goal that’s not easily achievable in a year. However, opening communication channels is a good start, something she thinks has been given a significant boost by the DOC’s hiring of Air Force Lt. Col. Dana Metzger as the new warden of JTVCC.

“He’ll have that place running as efficiently as the Dover Air Force Base in no time — he’s been amazing,” she said. “He’s very detail oriented and a great people person. Putting someone in place with his skills, background and openness to both the officers and need for change is going to make a big difference.”

Inmate relations can be improved by returning services to them that have been cut since Feb. 1 (for security), and adding additional programs, said Ms. DeMatteis.

“As we speak, we’re in the process of reinstating a lot of the inmate privileges and incentives at Vaughn,” she said. “Everything from religious services and classes to reopening the gym so inmates can lift weights and play basketball. We’re letting them have more recreation time, improving commissary privileges and expanding the offerings. We’re even looking at easy things like stocking a better movie selection. Correctional officers will be the first to tell you that more services available to the inmates makes their jobs easier — the officers are saying these programs need to come back.”

Reintroducing “evidence-based” inmate programming and increasing prison job availability and training will go a long way toward making the prison safer and the time inmates spend there more productive, she said.

“What I’ve learned through this process is that one of the best things we can do for inmates is to get them cognitive behavioral training so they can, to put it bluntly, understand why they are criminals,” says Ms. DeMatteis. “Research shows if you get inmates that training and supply job skills, that combination results in lower recidivism rates.

“Every criminologist and staff member in the DOC knows that, it’s just a matter of the funding and the staffing to run the programs. Remember, 90 percent of these inmates are eventually going to get back out. Focusing on these things makes everyone safer, especially the correctional officers.”

A tour of Delaware Correctional Industries, JTVCC’s inmate job training program, back in late August showed that there were only about 147 inmates currently allowed to participate. JTVCC houses about 2,400 inmates. Ms. DeMatteis agrees this number should be raised significantly, but notes that staffing and security concerns must be met first.

A recently formed 11-member “Inmate Advisory Council” will also add a new layer of inmate to correctional officer communication, she said.

“It’s not going to be a gripe session, but rather a structured organization/council where the inmates come together and meet once per month among themselves to prepare for a monthly meeting with Vaughn leadership,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “We believe this will really help improve communication and open a dialogue.”

Votes of confidence

Three months on the job is early in days, but already it seems that Ms. DeMatteis has the appreciation of all the administrations she has coordinated with. “As I said when I appointed Claire as special assistant this summer, she is tough and independent-minded, and she is committed to helping us make real and lasting change in our correctional system,” Gov. Carney said. “She will report publicly on progress, and we remain committed to getting this right.”

DOC Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead also expressed his confidence:

“Claire’s knowledge of Delaware’s criminal justice system coupled with her determination to help lead the DOC into the 21st century is invaluable to her position as Special Assistant,” he said. “I am confident in her ability to advocate on our behalf as we implement the recommendations set forth by the Independent Review Team.”

Even Geoff Klopp, president of the COAD, who’s been critical of some of Gov. Carney’s reforms, has had a successful working relationship with her.
“We’ve had some interactions with Claire and she’s going to be a tremendous asset moving forward,” he said. “She’s been a big help so far and I can tell once she gets even more knowledge, she’s going to be even more helpful. She’s a straight shooter.”

The resources that Gov. Carney and the General Assembly have made available to the DOC for prison reform since Feb. 1 are enough to get a great start, said Ms. DeMatteis. Her pay rate of $59 per hour being a part of those resources. However, she anticipates the need for more funding in the future.
“We’ll be needing to ask the general assembly for some additional funding for projects, but the commitment for the funding from the governor gives us what we need to get to work on these recommendations,” she said.

Time will tell how deep Gov. Carney’s hoped-for reforms take hold in the state’s prison system, but few are better positioned than Ms. DeMatteis to see that conditions truly change.

“In a year, I hope to be able to look back and see that we’ve put better training in place, strengthened safety measures and added enhanced services for inmates,” she said.

“Most importantly, I hope to see that we’ve set the DOC on course for 21st century corrections. We don’t want to just check boxes on this recommendation list.

“We need real change that would have prevented the past incident and will prevent the next one.”

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