Guards’ union chief, inmates’ advocate respond to report

Geoff Klopp

DOVER — Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, agreed with most of the points brought to the forefront by the preliminary independent review of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center delivered to Gov. John Carney on June 1.

Namely, that the prison is dangerously overcrowded, critically understaffed and poorly run and managed.

In a portion regarding staff morale and mission, the report noted that interviews revealed: “Line officers were most concerned with only trying to get through the day safely so that they could get home at the end of their shift. Not one officer could provide a consistent response when asked what was expected of them as an employee of the DOC.”

“I’m sad to say, but that would be a good description,” said Mr. Klopp.

Also noted in the report were concerns about overtime and low salaries — two items Mr. Klopp says he’s been trying to get addressed for years.

The report states: “In addition to excessive overtime, the low starting salary in conjunction with the lack of any substantial pay increases and promotional opportunities, have contributed to high rates of officer turnover. Officers at JTVCC can expect to earn less than $10,000 over their starting salary after 20 years of service in the Department, and this has been consistent across fiscal years.”

Mr. Klopp believes the most important change the state can make to increase safety and avert another incident at its prisons is to raise wages and reduce overtime hours.

“We need a real compensation package and a career ladder that will get more of the right people in the correctional officer’s job, so, start moving in the right direction,” he said. “If you’re going to pay a Lewes or Milton police officer $48,000 per year, you’d think you could pay a correctional officer, who works with criminals at least eight hours a day, close to the same compensation.”

According to the COAD, since January approximately 115 correctional officers have either retired or quit — only 126 were lost in 2016. Generally speaking, Mr. Klopp said he’s unimpressed with the progress the state has made toward addressing what he believes is a pending “crisis.”

“The DOC Commissioner (Perry Phelps) and the governor’s office are trying to make some changes, but it’s all just moving way too slow,” he said. “The General Assembly needs to do their part, find a way to get the money and make the DOC a priority. We’re only at 50 to 70 percent of our daily operational needs in some facilities and a lot of it is filled by overtime. We cannot continue this way any longer. Before too long we’ll have to do something drastic because these levels of overtime are unsustainable.”

Inmates’ advocate reacts

Attorney Stephen Hampton, of the law firm Grady & Hampton, LLC, says he’s been contacted by more than 230 inmates through letters or family members since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising. He said the most common complaints are physical/verbal abuse, reduced food portions, destroyed property, inadequate health care and ignored grievances.

A few of the inmates are requesting a class action lawsuit be filed on their behalf.

Mr. Hampton sent a letter to Gov. Carney in late March asking for “torture of Delaware inmates at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center to cease immediately.”
Although the governor’s office noted that they take allegations of abuse very seriously, they referred the matter to the DOC.

In his examination of the independent review, Mr. Hampton noted that the report does, at least, make mention of the alleged mistreatment.

The report states: “During the course of this preliminary review, the Independent Review Team received inmate-based complaints during interviews of inmates, advocates and attorneys. Inmate concerns expressed to external organizations included inconsistent discipline, lack of programming and medical care, a grievance process that most see as meaningless, the use of shaming tactics and the harassment of inmates by damaging or destroying their property under the guise of security searches and facility shakedowns.”

However, Mr. Hampton says the final line, “These complaints and other concerns will be referred to the DOC Commissioner and explored more fully in the final report,” tells him all he needs to know about the level of commitments the investigators have toward improving inmate treatment.

“The current DOC commissioner is aware of all of these problems, having worked his way up through the system for many years,” said Mr. Hampton. “Thousands of inmate complaints and scores of pro se lawsuits by inmates have documented all of these problems. The DOC has done virtually nothing to address these problems and likely never will as long as DOC commissioners are appointed who have aspirations to move on to another better job in Delaware state government, or who have other strong political connections in Delaware.”

He points to Carl Danberg and Robert Coupe as examples of former DOC commissioners that moved up to higher positions in the state government. Mr. Hampton thinks that hiring an out-of-state correctional professional with “training and experience” would be the surest route to improving conditions.

“Unless an out-of-state DOC commissioner is given carte blanche to address the way inmates are treated in DOC prisons, the DOC will do nothing about inmate treatment,” he said. “The DOC has had 20-plus years to address these known problems and failed to do it. It is folly to think they will now do something about the problems they have ignored for the past few decades.”

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