Recent assaults raise prison staffing concerns

DOVER — Two recent assaults by an inmate on correctional officers and a small uptick in incidents overall has the guards’ union leader concerned about safety and staffing in Delaware’s prisons.

“I’ve been in corrections for 28 years and all the signals are pointing to something terrible happening in one of these facilities,” said Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, who is concerned a staffing crisis at the state’s prisons is imminent.

On Dec. 4, an inmate assaulted an officer at the Sussex Correctional Institute in Georgetown. The assault, allegedly perpetrated by an inmate who’d been involved in another assault against an officer about six weeks prior, caused the officer to be treated at a local hospital for bruising and a concussion.

But corrections department leaders said last week that the situation is not as dire as claimed and the agency has measures in place to manage prisoner and correctional officer safety.

Mr. Klopp’s list of complaints includes low starting salaries for correctional officers, understaffed facilities, a high rate of early burnout, an unreasonable amount of “forced” overtime, inadequate training, an overly “protective” focus on inmates rather than officers and a rapidly changing prison environment resulting from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuits. His most pressing concern is the effect next year’s scheduled retirements will have on an already overloaded workforce.

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, stands in front of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. “By next summer, I’d be amazed if we don’t have to call the National Guard in,” said Mr. Klopp, who is concerned a staffing crisis at the state’s prisons is imminent. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We’ve got over 200 people set to start retiring next year starting on Jan. 1,” he said. “By next summer, I’d be amazed if we don’t have to call the National Guard in. I have been talking about this for five years and no one has done a thing.”

Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Robert Coupe, while agreeing that staffing can often be a challenge, said that several reliable contingencies are in place that would prevent an emergency situation.

“For next year we have 83 officers that have scheduled their retirement, 30 of those are scheduled for the beginning of January,” he said. “If we ever get to the point where we have a significant staffing shortage and we’re not able to rebound fast enough, we would go back to our core mission which is the safety and security of the institutions.”

Mr. Coupe said that the DOC would first pull back on outside work such as hospital escorts, court escorts and transport work in the event that there was not enough manpower to staff crucial positions. Enlisting the overtime assistance of probations and parole officers who have been either cross-trained as or originally promoted from correctional officers also would help stem a staffing crunch.

“About a year and a half ago when we were having some staffing struggles, we actually opened a training session to probation officers where they went through a 40-hour course on working in a prison so they’d be eligible to help with overtime requests,” said Mr. Coupe. “It’s a force multiplier that would help us through these challenging times if we do have staffing shortages.”

Even though he said he feels confident that it would not be necessary, Mr. Coupe said as a final contingency, the DOC can lean on its partnerships with local law enforcement.

“That would be a more reasonable response than calling the National Guard into the prisons,” he said. “We would pull our resources back to cover mandatory posts that we need for safety and security.”

Staffing woes

A low starting salary and early burnout are the two main contributors to the staffing issue, said Mr. Klopp.

“When you start at $32,000 per year as a correctional officer and most of your town police officers start at $44,000 to $47,000 and a Christiana Hospital constable starts at $40,000, why would you want to subject yourself to the prison environment for a salary that low?” he said. “We’re not even competitive with our surrounding states.”

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.

Mr. Coupe said he feels that, all things considered, the position does offer a competitive salary package.

“Starting salary for correctional officers is at $35,179.79 per year when you include what’s called hazardous duty pay that they get for working in a prison,” he said. “This is compared to DNREC officers that start at $28,825 per year and court constables at $27,870 per year.”

Additionally, Mr. Coupe said that many correctional officers take advantage of the overtime hours that are available to supplement their income and they enjoy an attractive benefits package.

“Higher salaries can help with recruiting and retention; it’s not something we’re opposed to,” he said. “As a cabinet secretary, though, I am very aware of the challenges the state faces with finances and it’s an ongoing struggle.” (Gov.-elect John Carney earlier this month nominated Perry Phelps, deputy prisons commissioner, to replace Mr. Coupe as secretary).

Corrections department leaders said as a result of contract negotiations, COAD members received pay increases every year since 2012 in addition to recently negotiating a 25-year retirement plan — down from the 30 years of service previously required before guards became eligible for retirement benefits.

On the burnout front, Mr. Klopp claims that for the past 15 years, the DOC has lost 57 percent of correctional officers within the first three years they are hired. He said he feels that is due to the stressful nature of the job in light of recent changes to prison procedures and an oppressive amount of “forced” overtime.

Although Mr. Klopp said that inmates’ mental health concerns are important and need to be dealt with in an appropriate way, he’d like to see correctional officers retain the ability to administer more punitive measures.

“It seems like people aren’t concerned with the inmates’ previous behaviors that got them where they are,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to put the inmates into isolation when they do something negative for the period of time we used to. We feel that there are not adequate consequences to deter bad behavior.”

He points to employee “freezes”, when a correctional officer is told they must continue working even though their shift is over, as being particularly problematic. He alleges that Gov. Jack Markell’s administration has made the conscious decision to pay overtime wages rather than creating and filling new positions because it’s cheaper.

“How do you have 110 job vacancies and a $20 million overtime budget?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re on a pace to break records next year for the amount of overtime pay we’re going to spend and I pray to god the new governor does something different.”

Though Mr. Coupe confirmed the overtime budget is $20 million, he said as of last week, the DOC only had 85 correctional officer series vacancies, with six of those in the maintenance division and 10 in food services.

The overtime cost, he said, is a concern and a challenge that the administration is working hard to relieve. A recent study the DOC 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. With the approval of Gov. Markell, the DOC submitted a request for 25 new positions at that facility for 2017 and another 28 the following year to meet the demands. In January, the DOC plans to conduct the same study at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna to assess overtime issues there as well.

The DOC’s associated responsibilities such as inmate transportation and court and hospital escorts add to the potential for staff freezes, said Bureau of Prisons Chief Christopher Klein.

“Last-minute hospitalizations and emergency runs are probably the largest driver of those situations where we’re going to hold staff over,” he said.

However, because of the way shifts are organized, the majority of overtime is still voluntary, rather than “forced.” The individual institutions also put in place measures to help streamline the process such as building an alternating list of staff members responsible to fill overtime from those with last names that fall into A through M one week and N to Z the next, Mr. Klein added.

“The institutions do a good job projecting out and they create different methods to manage it so staff aren’t left with last minute notice,” he said.

To illustrate the ratio of how much overtime is voluntary to how much is considered mandatory, the COD provided the record of overtime shifts recorded from Dec. 12-18 at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center:

• Total shifts of overtime reported: 597

• Total hours overtime: 4,776

• Total shifts of overtime that were mandatory: 13

• Total hours mandatory: 104

• Percentage of overtime that was mandatory: 2.18 percent

Another overtime management option that’s available is closing certain non-essential posts if they subject too many correctional officers to a freeze.

“We’ve allowed the wardens to cancel certain activities and even family visitation for offenders,” said Mr. Coupe. “We try to avoid that, but it happens.”

By using that method, the DOC provided data on overtime that was avoided for the same time period:

• Mandatory overtime shifts avoided by closing posts: 12

• Total hours of mandatory overtime avoided: 96

Retention, academy pipeline

In addition to eyeing the existing staff of correctional officers, both union and state correction department leaders see retention and new hires as critical factors in the overall picture of prison management.

“We average between 10 and 11 correctional officers separating from the department per month and that has been consistent,” Mr. Coupe said.

In the third quarter of 2016, 49 correctional officers separated from the DOC. Of those, 32 resigned voluntarily before reaching pension, six retired with pension, seven were dismissed, three transferred to a different state agency (this can include probation or parole jobs) and one went on disability, he said.

To grapple with the attrition, Mr. Coupe says the DOC is constantly graduating new cadets from their academy.

“From March 2013 to November 2016 we’ve graduated 527 correctional officers from our academies,” he said. “There are just over 1,700 correctional officers within our department. The department is always dealing with resignations, retirement and terminations.”

The DOC’s current academy class has 36 cadets in it, and he said, a new class is scheduled in January that’s expected to draw 40 more.

“We average about six classes per year,” Mr. Coupe said.

Even with carrying 85 correctional officer position vacancies, 83 officers set to retire in 2017, 53 officers needed to reduce overtime at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution and an additional average of 10 to 11 officers leaving per month, Mr. Coupe remains confident that the academy pipeline of new candidates is enough to meet the DOC’s minimum staff requirements. He also feels that in case of a staffing shortage, the contingencies in place are sufficient to keep the prisons secure.

Mr. Klopp disagrees and offers a grim warning for Gov.-elect Carney.

“They’ve left Carney with a mess,” he said. “What I’d say to him is we can’t continue down this road. Please do something about salaries, overtime and staffing before something terrible happens in one of our facilities. And if it does, just remember that it could have been avoided.”

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