New DOC chief: ‘We have what it takes’

DOVER — Claire DeMatteis officially replaced former Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps in a swearing-in ceremony held at the department headquarters in Dover on Monday.

Ms. DeMatteis, addressing DOC staff at the ceremony, said that rather than providing a list of her departmental priorities she wanted to reassure officers working for DOC on two questions: “Does she have my back?” and “Does she have what it takes?”

She promised to answer these challenges in the same way she said she has all the others in her life: with “leadership, grit and grace.”

The ceremony drew a large portion of DOC administrative staff, politicians, bureaucrats and other officials from throughout the state — including Gov, John Carney and the majority of his cabinet.

Gov. Carney in his welcome speech rehashed Ms. DeMatteis’s qualifications for the position at the head of the 2,500-strong department.
“Commissioner DeMatteis has worked hard over the past two years helping lead reform efforts at the Department of Correction — modernizing equipment and training to make our facilities safer, and helping recruit correctional officers to do one of the toughest jobs in state government,” he said.

The DOC has been struggling over the past decade with understaffing concerns, steadily growing overtime requirements and lawsuits claiming substandard inmate living conditions and medical care.
The department’s systemic ills lurched into the limelight on Feb. 1, 2017, when a riot broke out at the state’s largest prison, resulting in the death of a correction officer.

Ms. DeMatteis was appointed in mid-2017 as Gov. Carney’s special assistant to help implement a list of “41 key recommendations” provided by an independent investigation team.

In the role she worked alongside DOC leadership implementing a series of reforms intended to strengthen security, safety, officer training, recruitment and retention, prison-based programming and services. Ms. DeMatteis is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Delaware and serves as a University of Delaware Trustee. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Delaware and her law degree from Widener University’s Delaware Law School. Ms. DeMatteis was also former senior counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden. Though the current presidential candidate didn’t make an appearance at the ceremony, Gov. Carney read out a letter from him extolling Ms. DeMatteis’s “exceptional” strengths.

Family and friends look on at the swearing-in ceremony in Dover.

“I have absolutely no doubt that in addition to being the first female commissioner of the Department of Correction, she’ll be the very best,” read the letter from former Vice President Biden.
Working together for more than a year, Mr. Phelps and Ms. DeMatteis claimed great progress has been made addressing the department’s ills, but that work still needed to be done — specifically with staffing numbers and overtime requirements.

During his remarks, Gov. Carney thanked Mr. Phelps for his 31 year-long career with the DOC, the last two and a half of which were spent as commissioner.

“I just want to thank him for his tremendous support and leadership of this department,” said Gov. Carney. “He would often remind me that he could retire at any time. But I kept saying: ‘don’t even think about it.’”

The announcement of Mr. Phelps’s retirement came in late May. Two weeks prior to the announcement, the Associated Press had reported that Gov. John Carney refused to say whether he still had confidence in Mr. Phelps following allegations that contract medical workers were falsifying inmate treatment records.

Since then, it has been announced that DOC’s medical contractor is under investigation by the Department of Justice and both an inmate’s family and a former employee have filed separate lawsuits against the provider.
The day Mr. Phelps was sworn in on Feb. 1, 2017, the riot broke out in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that would largely go on to define his career as commissioner.

Though the violent 19-hour hostage stand-off that resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd received only briefly alluded to during the swearing in ceremony on Monday, Ms. DeMatteis memorialized the officer in her speech.

“We will face challenges, it is the nature of the job we signed up for,” she said. “But with the memory of Lt. Steven Floyd, and the ultimate sacrifice he and his family made for us never far from our hearts and souls, we will meet every challenge and exceed every expectation because we have what it takes.

“We have what it takes to carry out the dual mission entrusted to us of public safety and second chances.”

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