Hearing for DOC chief nominee: Will it be just a ‘walk-on’ or real hardball?

DOVER — With Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps stepping down in July, Gov. John Carney’s nominee to replace him, Claire DeMatteis, is waiting in the wings.

As of Friday, the Senate staff was still waiting on a formal request for a confirmation hearing.

It’s unclear when one will take place and if senators will walk Ms. DeMatteis on or give her an uphill climb.

One fact is certain: Given the state of the Department of Correction the commissioner’s job is one of critical importance.

Struggling routinely over the past decade with understaffing concerns, steadily growing overtime requirements and complaints of substandard inmate living conditions and medical care, the agency’s systemic ills lurched into the limelight on Feb. 1, 2017.

That’s when a deadly riot broke out at the state’s largest prison.
That morning, a group of masked inmates took control of C Building in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and held staff captive during a 19-hour standoff.

Though two badly beaten correctional officers and a female counselor were eventually released, correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd was killed during the riot.

Since then, the department’s policy has been under intense scrutiny. A lawsuit filed by Lt. Floyd’s estate and the survivors, a criminal investigation, a governor-ordered independent investigation and lawsuits filed by the inmate population of C Building have poured details of the DOC’s operating procedures into the public sphere.
“Fertile ground for chaos,” was how the governor’s investigation team described Vaughn prison.

Ms. DeMatteis was appointed in mid-2017 as Gov. Carney’s special assistant to help implement the list of “41 key recommendations” provided by the investigation team. Working alongside Mr. Phelps for more than a year, the duo claimed that great progress has been made.

By rolling out changes such as increasing salaries, redoubling recruitment efforts, increasing inmate program offerings, purchasing crucial equipment and both retraining staff and making initial training more rigorous, the DOC administration they’ve shored up the agency.

As of Friday a DOC spokesman said 184 correctional officer positions remain vacant, down from 262 this time last year.
An often harsh critic of the DOC administration, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD), says that understaffing and overtime requirements have improved — especially over the past several months.

“Freezes (mandatory overtime that forces an officer to extend their shift) have gotten a lot better recently,” he said. “With around 80 more officers working than this time last year, we’re starting to get a bit more control of the situation.”

Mr. Klopp has said he thinks Ms. DeMatteis would make a “great” commissioner.

However, his hopes are tempered by the quickly aging workforce that’s nearing retirement, still record spending on overtime and underreported position vacancies.
“We’re on course again to spend over $31 million on overtime this financial year,” he said. “The vacancy number being reported by the DOC doesn’t reflect all the recommended position by staffing studies the administration is doing.”

A staffing study conducted in late 2017 at Vaughn prison alone recommended an additional 137 correctional officers to properly staff it. The administration claims to have somewhat mitigated the staffing crunch at the building by contracting with Pennsylvania’s DOC to temporarily take custody of over 300 of Delaware’s prisoners.

According to the DOC, more staffing studies are ongoing at Sussex Correctional Institution and Howard R. Young Correctional Institution.
Issues facing commissioner
During the coming confirmation hearing, senators might ask Ms. DeMatteis about her past work or how she will handle pending issues the DOC is facing. Some of the most likely questions will revolve around her time helping to lead reforms at the department and how she intends to further address understaffing.

However, some more pointed questions could deal with the agency’s medical contractor, Connections Community Support Programs Inc.
It was announced in mid-May the state’s attorney general would investigate the provider regarding allegations that staffers were ordered to forge documents to falsely state that inmates were getting mental health treatment they never received.

Allegedly, the DOC did its own review of the claims and found nothing wrong. But, the Carney administration and DOJ felt it wasn’t sufficient.

The investigation is only the latest sign of problems within the state’s prison health system, which was the target of a federal investigation more than a decade ago.
“It’s upsetting that so many years down the road, and we’re still not apparently getting what we’re paying for,” Gov. John Carney said when the investigation was announced. “That’s just unacceptable.”

Senators might also ask Ms. DeMatteis about her budgetary plans. The DOC consumes the vast majority of overtime spending in the state. Over the past two years the department has asked for significant increases in its allotment of tax dollars.

This newspaper reported last year that a portion of the $1.3 million earmarked as an “investment in new equipment and training for correctional officers” by the governor’s office was reallocated to other projects.

Ms. DeMatteis, who at the time was helping to lead needed reforms, said the funds were an ordinary allocation in the state’s budgetary process, which put the spending at the agency’s discretion.

But, responding to questions about the spending, the governor’s office said flatly that the money was used “as we represented in communications.”

However, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the DOC provided an accounting of the sum that showed $343,600 of those funds were “transfered to fund other critical department-wide operating, contractual and training needs.” These expenses included Muslim services for inmates, more fleet vehicles for DOC staff, and cameras at a probation and parole building.

Ms. DeMatteis maintained that the “excess” funds were spent “wisely, legitimately and transparently.”

Legislators might also have interest in how Ms. DeMatteis plans to handle the ongoing fallout from the 2017 riot. The Delaware State Police-led criminal investigation indicted 18 inmates for perpetrating the crime, but after three separate trials only a single murder conviction was obtained. Another inmate was convicted on lesser charges, but four were fully acquitted. The DOJ announced on Wednesday that is was abandoning its pursuit of charges on the remaining inmates.

The criminal investigation was only one of three into the incident, in addition to the governor’s independent review there was also a DOC internal affairs investigation into the handling of the riot.

Administrative accountability for the incident has long hovered over proceedings. Clearly feeling there was fault, survivors of the riot, including Lt. Floyd’s family and estate, sued the state and several of its officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Filed in April 2017, the suit’s complaint rests on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long ignored staffing issues within the DOC. However, it was settled out of court for $7.5 million — believed to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware’s history.
Though no official announcement was made about the completion of the internal affairs investigation, Mr. Phelps said last November it was done.

According to spokesman Jonathan Starkey, Gov. Carney reviewed the investigation results.

“Gov. Carney read the report and has been in regular communication with Commissioner Phelps regarding its findings,” Mr. Starkey said in February. “Commissioner Phelps has continued to work with Claire DeMatteis as needed to continue the Department’s focus on the recommendations of the Independent Review and to address the IA report. The Governor and the Commissioner speak regularly regarding the Department’s work in this area.”
The House and Senate committees responsible for overseeing the DOC have noted their desire to review the investigation
“Both as the chair of the committee and as a citizen, I want the opportunity to talk to the corrections officials and administrators to be briefed on the results of that audit so we can hopefully gain a fuller understanding of what happened,” Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, the new chairperson of the House Corrections Committee, said in February.

Her counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Bruce Ennis (D), noted that the Senate Corrections & Public Safety committee also had an interest in reviewing the investigation results for the same reason.
Pending lawsuit
Likely more in the hands of the DOJ at present, Ms. DeMatteis may have to contend with the remaining lawsuit against the state on behalf of inmates who claim they were brutalized during and after the riot.

Dover attorney Stephen Hampton, who is represents the more than 100 inmates, filed an 80-page complaint late last year alleges “inhumane conditions” at Vaughn, and states that for many years prior to the riot prison personnel “illegally abused, mistreated and tortured inmates with virtually nothing being done by their JTVCC (Vaughn prison) or DOC supervisors, to stop them.”

Though he doesn’t know Ms. DeMatteis personally, Mr. Hampton believes a candidate from out-of-state — politically disconnected — would make a better nominee.

“I believe that change will only occur at DOC if someone from another state is appointed and given authority to make changes unfettered from the good old boy system,” he said Friday.

“Historically, candidates from within the system have had conflicts of interest, with some using their appointment as stepping stones to a better job, such as judge or cabinet secretary for the Department of Security and Homeland Security.
“Such appointees do not feel free to end the good old boy system, and therefore cannot bring about real change.”

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

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