Prison staffing shortage continues to vex officials

Department of Correction car parked at the gate at James T. Vaughn in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — In late December, West Virginia’s Gov. Jim Justice issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in its understaffed prisons.

West Virginia’s Division of Correction currently lists 315 correctional officer vacancies — Delaware’s DOC reports 270 vacancies.

The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) and a state auditor’s report from last year on overtime spending suggest the actual number of vacancies is much higher.

Although the state of West Virginia has about double the population, they have 5,897 inmates in their prisons to Delaware’s 5,364. In a report on their staffing “crisis,” the West Virginia DOC said their overtime costs for FY2016 were $13.5 million.

This is dwarfed by the $22 million in overtime pay Delaware’s DOC paid out in the same time period. A report released by state auditor Thomas Wagner last May said partial data pulled from FY2017 indicated similar figures.

Geoff Klopp

COAD president Geoff Klopp has long claimed the “actual” number of correctional officer vacancies is much higher than the DOC reports.

“This just comes from the dead reckoning of the overtime numbers,” Mr. Klopp said in November. “The DOC is currently doing a staffing study at JTVCC (James T. Vaughn Correctional Center) and I know that it’s going to indicate that we need over 100 extra officers at that prison alone not accounted for in the number the DOC is reporting.

“Then the DOC is going to complete the rest of its staffing studies that will show we need at least another 150 more officers across the other prisons.”

DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said Tuesday the Vaughn staffing study is nearing its final stages and is “not ready for public dissemination.”

She said the DOC administration plans to conduct its next staffing study at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington. In Dec. 2016, a DOC staffing study performed at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle showed that adding 53 more correctional officers could reduce overtime at that location by 70 percent.

Ms. Gravell said 267 correctional officers separated from the department in 2017 and 157 were hired — a net loss of 110.

West Virginia state of emergency

Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for West Virginia’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (the agency that oversees their DOC), said their governor’s executive order was a “prudent” move that made much needed assistance available to the state’s prisons.

“It allows other agencies within this department to assist with staffing in the short term,” he said. “It’s not just our National Guard, it’s our Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Capitol Police, Division of Protective Services and our Division of Justice and Community Services.”

Mr. Messina said the order will dispatch around 90 people from the various agencies to help relieve the state’s sorely understaffed prisons.

“Almost half of them will be National Guardsmen who already have security training, but they’ll be performing outside perimeter patrols,” he said.

“Other emergency workers can help operate control towers and monitor security camera systems — none of them will have direct contact with inmates because they haven’t been trained in our academy like all our other prison staff has.

“The hope is that for every one correctional officer replaced in these outside support positions, that is one that has been freed up to work in the prisons.”

By no means a long-term solution, Mr. Messina said the executive order seemed to acknowledge persistent alarms West Virginia’s DOC has been making about understaffing over the past few years and may expedite needed reform.

“Our department’s secretary, Jeff Sandy, and the leaders of our corrections agencies have, for years, been underscoring the pay and conditions faced by our correctional officers, employees and inmate population,” he said.

“The leadership team is very appreciative of our governor taking the step to provide short term relief to help firm up public confidence in the correctional system and provide real help to our correctional men and women.

“He’s set the stage for longer term, substantive improvements during this legislative session.”

Delaware state of emergency?

Both the DOC and Governor’s Office did not respond to questions about what they considered an emergency level of understaffing and whether a response similar to West Virginia’s would be prudent.

In November, Jonathan Starkey, spokesman for the governor’s office, said policy restricted sharing to the public details on emergency plans.

“The DOC has an emergency operations plan,” he said. “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on details of that plan.”

The DOC also said in November it couldn’t discuss specifics.

In April, this newspaper reported the DOC had a “routine” meeting with the Delaware National Guard to discuss “emergency preparedness.” At the time, Lt. Col. Len Gratteri, a National Guard spokesman who sat in on the meeting, said that if needed the agency could quickly provide manpower and equipment.

“Our director of military support has plans in place for things like riots in one of our cities or nuclear releases — we try to be prepared for anything,” Lt. Col. Gratteri said at the time.

“The DOC has their own plans for emergencies and we may be one of the resources called upon. What we provide, in general terms, is manpower and equipment.”

Lt. Col. Gratteri noted the National Guard’s role is a support one.

“The requester would ask for personnel with specific skills, and we would ensure we have the right amount of people and that they either already possess those skills, or we would prepare them to standard,” he said.

“We have approximately 2,700 men and women with a wide variety of skills, and if needed, we are confident we can support in any situation.”
What’s being done?

A governor-ordered independent review of prison conditions leading up to the deadly Feb. 1 Vaughn prison uprising stated that issues like communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners all contributed to the incident.

However, the point driven home the hardest by the review remains “critically low staffing levels.” The review reads:

“The high rate of turnover at the JTVCC is one of the most concerning observations documented by the Independent Review Team, particularly in light of a vast body of scientific literature on the health and safety risks of burnout. Physical and mental exhaustion not only negatively impact correctional officer safety and wellness, but also pose significant security risks to individuals and the institution.”

When former Family Court Judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III released the report in September, Gov. John Carney agreed that “staffing has to be number one.”

Since Feb. 1, the DOC, Gov. Carney and COAD have unveiled several strategies to address systemic ills in the state’s prison system.

“Gov. Carney worked closely with the COAD over the summer to approve raises for officers across experience levels — including a 22 percent increase to starting officer pay,” ((said Mr. Starkey.)) “The agreement with COAD also included a new Labor Management Committee that will recommend ways to improve recruitment and retention of officers and decrease the use of mandatory overtime. We are hopeful that an agreement will be reached in the near future on concrete changes we can make.”

Salaries?

The DOC, the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly appear to be investing in a long game that focuses on systemic reform. But, Mr. Klopp said in November that he believes a “simple solution” has been looking the state in the eye for more than a decade: The need for hi0gher salaries.

West Virginia’s correctional pay is significantly lower than Delaware’s. Their Personnel Board approved a raise in July that included a $2,080 increase in the base salary for correctional officers, from $22,584 to $24,664. Mr. Messina noted that Gov. Justice was laying out a budget on Wednesday that would propose an additional $6,000 pay raise over the next three years in $2,000 — bringing the starting salary up to just over $30,000.

Gov. Carney saw to it last year that the starting salary for Delawarean correctional officers increased this financial year to $40,000, and it is set to increase again in fiscal year 2019 to $43,000.

Mr. Klopp has said that it’s still not enough.

“It’s a $1,500 pay raise when we can’t even get enough people to fill out applications right now — it’s not enough,” he said in November. “Surrounding states are paying much more and if someone can make $48,000 a year as a Lewes or Milford town cop, where do you think people are going to apply?”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for correctional officers in Maryland is between $40,570 and 48,560. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, it’s at least $49,830.

New applicants

Although unclear if the state’s salary and procedural changes have had a positive effect, the DOC’s training academy appears to be seeing a slight up-tick in enrollment. In early November, 20 cadets graduated from the nine-week program. According to Ms. Gravell, another 20 correctional officer cadets will be graduating on Jan. 19 and 34 are set to graduate on March 16.

“I’m happy to see a small rise in the number of cadets, but we’re still not even treading water,” said Mr. Klopp.

Mr. Klopp believes that with an average drop-out rate of over 20 correctional officers per month and a quickly approaching glut of retirements, the understaffing situation could worsen sharply before it gets better.

“We have approximately 325 people that are eligible to retire this year,” he said. “How many will retire when they become eligible varies from person to person, but I can say for certain that the retirement numbers over the next three years will be very significant.

“Between the actual vacancies, upcoming retirements, the rate we’re losing correctional officers and low amount of cadets in the academy, we could be looking at nearly 800 correctional officer vacancies in the next year or so.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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