Rally and march offer support for police, prison personnel as state budget looms

DOVER — The 50 or so people who gathered at the Law Enforcement Memorial on Legislative Mall were there to remind the lawmakers working inside the state capitol just steps away – do not forget Delaware’s correctional and law enforcement officers.

The 302 Back Our Blue Rally on Wednesday started out with a wind-blown march from the Dover Police Department that ended up on the steps of Legislative Hall, with the supporters chanting, “Back the Blue! Back the Blue!”

The group then walked down to the Law Enforcement Memorial, where they remembered Lt. Steven Floyd, the correctional officer who was killed during an inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 1.

While remembering Lt. Floyd and his service, speakers also focused on the future, and making sure such a tragedy does not happen again.

“Every news story has a certain life cycle,” Ronald Poliquin, an attorney from Dover, told the crowd. “Everyone here is here to make sure that when the headlines subside and people don’t remember … that nobody forgets what happened February 1st.

Kati Kline, of 302 Back Our Blue, speaks to supporters atop the steps of Legislative Hall on Wednesday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

“When people start forgetting, we need to remind them what’s important.”

Sharon Henderson, one of the organizers of the 302 Back Our Blue Rally, said changes in the correctional facilities are long overdue.

“Our immediate mission is to lobby the state government to supply and fund the necessary resources and schools needed to facilitate a safer environment in Delaware’s prisons,” Ms. Henderson said. “Correctional institutions statewide have been systematically neglected for many years.

“The facilities and staff have both suffered from underfunding and habitual understaffing with an over-reliance on mandatory overtime as a cost-saving measure. Safety of our officers must be our No. 1 priority. We must demand immediate changes for our officers.”

Theresa, whose spouse is a correctional officer, displays her sign for passersby as she awaits the start of Wednesday’s rally.

Ms. Henderson and Kati Kline, also of 302 Back our Blue, both read letters to the crowd that were written by the wives of correctional officers.

Both women wrote of long days — and nights — where they were unable to see or communicate with their spouses due to the large amount of overtime they are forced to work, of fearing for their husbands’ lives on a daily basis and how the officers face danger on a daily basis for minimal pay.

Sam Chick, a local business owner, read a letter published in the Delaware State News from a correctional officer regarding some of the things they have to face every day, such as being spit on by inmates, or worse.

Sen. Bruce Ennis (D-Smyrna), the chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee, said improvements to correctional facilities are imperative and that he believes “the death penalty must be restored.”

“I do believe there exists no excuse for the tragic death of Lt. Floyd, or for that matter any (bad) treatment by the inmates to the other hostages on Feb. 1 at James T. Vaughn Correction Center,” Sen. Ennis said. “We must move swiftly to give our correctional officers the tools and resources they need to protect themselves.

A group of nearly 50 people attended the Back Our Blue rally on Legislative Mall.

“We do need a boost of manpower at all our facilities. Salaries should be more competitive to obtain and retain correctional officers. Additional surveillance cameras are needed. ACLU agreements must be tempered. Assault on our correctional officers must stop.”

Geoffrey Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the issues that correctional officers face are nothing new.

“This issue just did not start on February 1st when Lt. Floyd was murdered,” Mr. Klopp said. “This issue started back when Tom Carper was the governor of this state and it’s gone through three governors … and now we’re on our fourth governor.

“The staffing issues have always been there. This has been a systemic failure of the correctional officers in the Department of Correction by the leaders of the state of Delaware.”

Mr. Klopp noted that today’s release of the FY 2018 state budget by Gov. Carney could be a key to helping fix some of the problems that have plagued correctional facilities in the state.

“We wait anxiously (today) to hear Governor (John) Carney’s comments in reference to his budget,” he said. We hope to hear the correct words, but we’re also prepared to do things if we don’t hear those words (today).”

Mr. Poliquin also said he hopes there is additional help for correctional officers in today’s budget.

“You pay these correctional officers better, you give them better training, I guarantee health and safety of prisoners will go up,” said Mr. Poliquin. “Better training, better pay, better benefits and improved working conditions will lead to healthier and safer inmates and, more importantly, healthier and safer correctional officers.”

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