Prison progress report touts progress, notes remaining challenges

 

Special Assistant with the Department of Correction Claire DeMatteis looks over the six-month progress report on prison reform at the DOC office in Dover on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Special assistant Claire DeMatteis issued her six-month progress report on prison reform Thursday. The 65-page report detailed work completed and in progress toward specific goals — with a focus on correctional officer training, recruitment and retention, modernizing Department of Correction operations and improving services for inmates.

Ms. DeMatteis has been on the job for six months of the anticipated year-long project.

The 52-year-old Wilmingtonian was tasked by Gov. John Carney to spearhead state prison reform in the wake of the deadly Feb. 1 James T. Vaughn Correctional Center inmate uprising. After the incident, Gov. Carney ordered an independent review to examine conditions at the prison leading up to the riot and make recommendations to address them.

The review, conducted by former Family Court Judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III, produced a 159-page report which provided 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s “systemic” ills.

With the new report in hand, Gov. Carney noted that he believes progress has been made.

“We are serious about implementing the recommendations of the Independent Review, and improving safety and security across our correctional system,” said Gov. Carney. “We have more work ahead of us. Making lasting change won’t happen in a few short months. But as this report indicates, we are making progress. Thank you to Claire DeMatteis for all of her hard work, to Commissioner (Perry) Phelps, to all of our correctional officers, and to everyone at the DOC for their work and dedication.”

DOC Commissioner Phelps also claimed that significant strides had been made toward reform.

“Since receiving the Independent Review, we have moved quickly to take action and implement the review team’s recommendations,” said Mr. Phelps. “Addressing the challenges we face will require our focus and attention over the long-term. But all the people of the DOC are committed to this work. I want to thank Claire for her partnership and every officer and member of the leadership team for their contributions.”

Progress

Chief among the accomplishments, the report notes:

•Installation of dozens of cameras at Vaughn prison

•Additional trainings for all officers in risk management, de-escalation, communication, leadership and cultural competency skills

•Initiatives at Vaughn prison to improve communication among officers, inmates and supervisors, including a new Inmates’ Advisory Council and Correctional Officers’ Advisory Council

•Renewed focus at Vaughn prison on services for inmates, including educational and job training opportunities, library and religious services and increased commissary offerings.

The independent report — being used as a “road map for reform” — urged the DOC to install cameras in key locations throughout Vaughn prison. Ms. DeMatteis says this process is well underway.

“We got the final independent report with recommendations on September 1st, 2 months later, on November 1st, the first cameras started being installed at Vaughn — that’s action,” she said.

Ms. DeMatteis’s report notes that the General Assembly included $2 million in a bond bill for FY2018 to purchase cameras for the prison. It notes that installation is continuing on an “accelerated schedule.” Because each building takes about a month to wire for cameras and inmates must be moved from building to building in some instances, the entire project’s completion date is expected to be March 2019.

Through a number of different initiatives and programs, the report touted its aggressive pursuit of correctional officer trainings.

“Starting Tuesday at Wilmington University, 1,200 correctional officers are going to get specialized training in de-escalation, risk-management, communication and cultural awareness skills,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “This training was designed specifically for the DOC by the university’s law enforcement professionals. Also starting next week, 400 correctional officers in leadership positions are going to get training in supervisory management and leadership skills.”

Inmate conditions

The report notes several initiative undertaken to boost services available to inmates and foster stronger, more productive communication between them and correctional officers.

“For some reason there is a perception that the DOC doesn’t want to improve services for inmates, but that’s just flat wrong,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “We need to take certain precautions of course, but improving conditions makes everyone safer.”

Ms. DeMatteis points to expanded GED services, growing the inmate job training programs, a new culinary arts training program and the new Inmates’ Advisory Council as standout examples of the measures being taken to this end.

The advisory council consists of 10 inmates from minimum and medium security housing units that meet monthly to discuss issues between correctional officers and inmates and make recommendations to the administration.

“It’s like a city council meeting, they sit at a table and have an agenda that they present and they address one another and the warden’s leadership team,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “They’ve already come up with some useful suggestions. One thing was that some of the food and hygiene products being sold at the commissary weren’t culturally, religiously or ethnically diverse. Another was that they desired more communication during lock down procedures. These are fair requests and relatively minor changes that can go a long way to fostering better relationships. Communication is so important, and that’s what we’re trying to foster here.”

Ms. DeMatteis said that she’s heard, only anecdotally, that some of the correctional officers in the prison may feel that these reforms are too inmate-centric, but the majority of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“What we have definitely seen are a lot of emails and letters to the warden and commissioner from staff thanking them and saying: this is the direction we need to go,” said Ms. DeMatteis. “Some people may be a little resistant to change, we get that, but we have to work through this day by day and focus on improving conditions. Warden Lt. Col. Dana Metzger is absolutely focused on improving communication between all levels of staff and with inmates.”

An interesting side-note mentioned in the report is that Warden Metzger also recently reinvigorated the “Isthmus” — Vaughn prison’s in-house news publication. The quarterly publication will be formatted and produced for “the benefit of inmates and staff alike.”

Understaffing

The dark cloud hovering over the DOC remains its understaffed prisons and high demand for overtime. Ms. DeMatteis candidly admits that it remains the biggest challenge ahead and substantive progress has been slow-going.

“It’s going to take time,” she said. “We’re going to sit here again in July (when the next progress report is expected) and still be talking about this. We’re going to make progress, but yes, we’ll still have too many vacancies. It’s just a reality of the time it takes to fix a problem like this, but we’re going to do it.”

The DOC is currently reporting 270 vacant correctional officer positions and spent $22 million in overtime pay over FY2016 — the most of any state agency. A long bemoaned policy of “mandatory overtime” is destined to continue for at least another year, said Ms. DeMatteis. However, she feels that changes to several DOC policies in the past six months, and a ramp-up in recruitment efforts, will soon reap rewards.

“We’ve established a career ladder and promotional standards which has been very significant,” she said. “We’ve hired an active recruiter and will soon be hiring our second one. Also, the second starting salary increase — to $43,000 per year — will be taking effect in July.”

Ms. DeMatteis said recruiters have developed a few “creative” ideas for actively headhunting possible applicants.

“The Delaware State Police’s academy is very competitive, they can get thousands of applications and only accept a few dozen,” she said. “We’ve been working on reaching out to those other applicants who didn’t make it in, for one reason or another, and encouraging them to apply with us. They’ve expressed an interest in law enforcement, we can try to convince them to start their careers with us.”

In terms of DOC academy enrollment numbers, recent movement in the needle is small, but it does support Ms. DeMatteis’s claim.

In early November, 20 cadets graduated from the nine-week academy program. According to the DOC, another 20 correctional officer cadets will be graduating on Jan. 19 and 34 are set to graduate on March 16.

“What we’re hoping is that potential applicants will see the progress we’ve made, the investments in training and safety and comprehensive reforms and look at the job and say: ‘That’s for me,’” said Ms. DeMatteis.

Only time will tell if academy enrollment continues to rise. In the meantime, Ms. DeMatteis appears to have made a believer out of Geoff Klopp, the president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware. The union president has often been critical of former governors’ and administrators reforms and noted on many occasions that the plight of the state’s officers is dire.

“Claire has done a great job spearheading this situation,” he said. “We’ve made tremendous progress in the first six months. But now, more than ever, we need to continue redoubling our efforts to fix our number one problem: staffing.”

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

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