Help wanted: Jobs go unfilled in Correction Department

Delaware Department of Corrections Commissioner Perry Phelps is questioned during at Joint Finance Committee meeting at Leg Hall on Tuesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery


DOVER — One year after correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed in an inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, more than 10 percent of correctional officer positions are vacant, and the correctional officers union says far too many problems remain.

According to Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, there are 261 open spots in the state’s prisons. While a spokeswoman for the agency did not respond to a question about how many correctional officers the state has budgeted for, a report from the Department of Correction says there were 1,698 officers employed by the state for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016.

Budget-writing lawmakers spent about three hours going over the Department of Correction’s budget Tuesday, which Gov. John Carney proposed increasing by $20.5 million. The agency is earmarked $308.1 million this year.

Joshua Wilkinson, left, was one of the correctional officers who was taken and beaten during the Feb 1, 2017 uprising talks to Sen. Dave Lawson, Rep. William Carson and Rep. Harvey Kenton before a Joint Finance Committee meeting at Leg Hall on Tuesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The Department of Correction has been under heavy fire over the past year after a rebellion and hostage situation at the state’s largest prison last February. The state reached an agreement in June to raise correctional officer pay from about $35,200 to $43,000 over two years, with the second increase taking officers from $40,000 to $43,000 starting July 1.

Despite that hike, the Department of Correction actually lost 110 officers in 2017: 267 correctional officers separated from the department last year, while 157 were hired.

Even if the 75 positions added this year — funding for which did not start until Jan. 1 — are removed, the department is still left with fewer actual people employed as correctional officers than the year before.

The agency brought in 379 cadets in 2017, but it has 261 correctional officer vacancies, along with 179 people currently eligible to retire, according to Mr. Phelps and other department officials.

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said last month there are about 325 employees eligible to retire this year.

Asked if the Department of Correction was doing enough to recruit potential COs, Mr. Phelps said “we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

The agency has added a recruiter and has been trying to attract people through job fairs, commercials and college visits, and it is considering creating a signing bonus for new hires. The department is also seeking to bring in qualified Delaware State Police applicants who end up not being hired by police.

Being a CO, Mr. Phelps said, is an “honorable” job.

“We have to change the narrative about corrections,” he said. “No doubt about it, it’s a dangerous place to work, things can happen. However, it’s not all bad.”

The state added 50 CO positions at Vaughn and 25 at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution for the current fiscal year. Gov. Carney’s budget recommendations call for funding 28 more positions at Baylor in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, questioned the agency’s numbers, noting officials said they brought in 349 cadets but still had 261 vacancies.

“We seem to be in that vicious cycle of” hiring new people, only for others to leave, she said.

In addition to recruiting, retention has long been an issue for the department.

Sen. Dave Lawson questions Delaware Department of Corrections Commissioner Perry Phelps during at Joint Finance Committee meeting at Leg Hall on Tuesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The agency’s woes took center stage 12 months ago, after inmates at Vaughn took control of the prison’s Building C Feb. 1 and captured three officers and one counselor. Three maintenance workers were also trapped in the building.

Inmates held the facility for 19 hours before authorities breached it into the early morning hours of Feb. 2 and found Steven Floyd dead. Sixteen inmates have since been charged with murder.

The department’s failings have been laid bare in the ensuing year, with several reports released in that time highlighting how the staff vacancies, low morale and lack of leadership contributed to the uprising.

“No correctional officer interviewed was able to articulate a consistent description of what was expected of them as an employee of the DOC,” read a September report produced by a former state judge and U.S. attorney. “In fact, the only consistent answer provided by correctional officers was that their goal was to get through their shift safely so that they could go home.”

Mandatory overtime, often required of officers after they already worked an 8-hour shift, contributed to the conditions in the prison.

Of the $20.5 million increase recommended by the budget, about half of that would cover the second phase of the pay raises for correctional officers. Another $3.6 million would go toward creating a defined career ladder to give correctional officers a clear path to advancement. Delaware State Police has a similar ladder in place already.

The bond bill proposal provides funding for more tasers, cameras and ballistic vests.

Delaware Department of Corrections officers listen during a Joint Finance Committee meeting at Leg Hall on Tuesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The new spending in the operating budget includes 12 items recommended by the review team of the judge and U.S. attorney. Among that is funding for additional drug tests and religious services for employees and behavioral therapy for inmates.

But correctional officer pay remains the biggest sticking point: Mike Arabia, a member of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware’s executive board, told lawmakers the state’s prisons “are at the breaking point.”

“The biggest issue is we need to get more people taking the job, we need to pay them more money, we need to keep them in the industry,” Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, said.

Mr. Phelps declined to answer questions from reporters after the budget presentation, citing a pending meeting.

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