Prison staffing woes continue as officers, medical personnel quit

Donald Parkell, an inmate who filed a federal lawsuit over the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 1, said no prisoners resisted the rescuers but “… officers injured nearly every man, hostages included.” (File Photo/Jon Lloyd)

DOVER — Thirteen correctional officers have resigned and 12 more have filed for retirement since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center left one officer dead and others injured.

In addition, the DOC’s medical contractor, Connections Community Support Programs, has had 29 employees choose to separate since the hostage incident.

A spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Correction noted that DOC employees are entitled to retire after 25 years of service.

And the loss of 29 employees from the medical contractor doesn’t mean it is understaffed, said DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.

“There are not 29 vacancies,” she said. “Connections maintains a pool of per-diem workers who fill in when necessary.”

The reasons given for the resignations are not available.

Ms. Gravell said Monday the recent spate of resignations isn’t higher than the DOC’s normal rate.

However, she noted last week by email that the DOC normally has an attrition rate of 11 officers per month. In December, the then-DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe offered the same average in an article in this newspaper.

“We average between 10 and 11 correctional officers separating from the department per month and that has been consistent,” Mr. Coupe said at the time.
But Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, believes the recent rate is most certainly not normal.

“We’ve had 25 leave in 28 days — that’s way higher than normal,” he said.

There are now 114 correctional officer series vacancies in the DOC, which constitutes approximately 6 percent of those positions, Ms. Gravell said.

To grapple with the attrition the DOC tries to constantly graduate new cadets from its academy. The training offered is in the form of an 11-week course. The most recent group to graduate, on Feb 3, was comprised of 39 cadets.

Twenty-two cadets are currently enrolled in the DOC’s academy. They are scheduled to graduate on March 17, said Ms. Gravell. Of this group, 20 are correctional officers, one is a food service specialist and one is a correctional counselor.

A current job posting on the state’s website, with an opening date of Feb. 1, seeks potential correctional officer candidates. The yearly salary is listed at a minimum of $32,059.79 with hazardous duty pay of $3,120. Weekends and holidays are required. Applicants must have education, training and/or experience demonstrating competence in each of the following areas:

• At least 19 and 1/2 years of age.

• Possession of a high school Diploma or equivalent.

• Possession of a valid driver’s license (not suspended, revoked or canceled or disqualified from driving).

Staffing proposals

Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, called for raising salaries for correctional officers and hiring more guards on Feb. 22 to combat the DOC’s perceived staffing issues.

“It’s time to do right by these corrections officers,” Sen. Lawson said in a statement. “We can use existing funds to pay these officers a more competitive salary, and in the process increase the quality and depth of the pool of new recruits.”

Sen. Lawson’s plan would raise beginning salaries to $37,000 and give all current officers a $4,000 pay hike. The plan also calls for the agency hiring 180 new employees. The estimated cost totals $15 million.

The remaining funds budgeted for overtime could still be used to cover necessary overtime, Sen. Lawson said.

In comparison, the average wage for correctional officers nationwide is $45,320, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey pay higher salaries, something previously noted by Mr. Klopp. He says officers are overworked and underpaid with low salaries making it difficult to attract and retain talent.

In response to the proposal, the COAD sees Sen. Lawson’s move as a “first step.”

“The issues which led us to where we are today require more than piecemeal efforts,” COAD officials said in a news release.

They also noted that they’d soon be presenting a “comprehensive plan for addressing the systemic neglect which brings us to where we are today.”

Mr. Klopp said Wednesday the Office of Management and Budget has had the COAD’s proposal for about a week and has told him they are reviewing it.

Staff writer Matt Bittle contributed to this report.

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