Report: Prison still understaffed

James T. Vaughn Warden Dana Metzger watches two inmates being interviewed by the media inside the prison on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — State officials on Tuesday said 40 of 41 key recommendations made by an independent review team after the deadly inmate uprising at Vaughn prison last year have been implemented.

The one that’s not: Reducing mandatory overtime for an overworked and understaffed team of correctional officers.

In the wake of the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna on Feb. 1, 2017, Gov. John Carney convened an independent review team. It was led by former Family Court Judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III.

Their task — to examine conditions at the prison leading up to the riot and make recommendations to address them.

The team produced a 159-page report which provided the 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s systemic ills.

After receiving the report, Gov. Carney appointed Claire DeMatteis as a special assistant to spearhead prison reform based on the report’s recommendations.

On Tuesday, Ms. DeMatteis delivered her final progress report on the status of implementing suggested reforms.

“The one recommendation that requires continued focus and substantive action is the recommendation to reduce mandatory overtime,” the final report states.

While significant progress has been made by the DOC over the past year, some say the single item to elude Ms. DeMatteis and DOC administrators is the most important one.

Gov. John Carney shakes hands with Delaware Correctional officers during final DOC report at James T. Vaughn on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, has said repeatedly the agency’s biggest and most dangerous issue is its number of vacant correctional officer positions.

“I don’t think there is enough emphasis placed on it in the report,” he said. “The emphasis is placed on the other 40 areas where they believe they’ve made progress.

“That’s important and they’ve done very well with all their adjustments, but the most important issue is staffing. Period.”

The report noted the DOC carries 227 vacant correctional officer positions statewide. It’s also noted that a recently released staffing analysis at Vaughn prison recommended adding 137 more officers. This would bring the total vacancy number up to 364.

But, when pressed on why the department is still circulating the original count of 227, DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps drew a distinction between “optimum staffing levels” and “minimum staffing levels.”

“We’re working toward getting to the optimum number,” he said during a Tuesday press conference. “I believe within the next year or so we should be close to that optimum number.”

Mr. Phelps also noted that over the past year the DOC has hired more correctional officers than they have in the past five years. He said 53 cadets are currently enrolled in the agency’s academy set to graduate in August.

However, recruitment figures still indicate a net correctional officer loss and the departments overtime budget has ballooned during the same time period.

Gov. John Carney, right, and Delaware Correctional Commissioner Perry Phelps announce the final DOC report at James T. Vaughn on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The DOC spent $22 million on overtime pay during financial year 2017, and just closed out FY2018 with a tab of nearly $31 million — an over 40 percent increase for the government agency already spending the largest proportion of the state’s overtime dollars by far.

“The glaring issue that was the root cause of Steven Floyd’s murder is still around today,” claims Mr. Klopp. “We just don’t have enough correctional officers. Even with all the efforts, we have almost 100 fewer correctional officers working today than we did on this day last year.”

Despite this, the governor’s office and DOC remain convinced that measures implemented over the last year will soon begin to spin the understaffing and overtime wheels in the right direction.

Ms. DeMatteis’s report notes that “enhanced recruiting efforts could take another 18 to 24 months to yield substantial reductions in officer vacancies.”

Though the specter of understaffing looms, Gov. Carney claimed that the one-year prison reform window was an opening salvo rather than a deadline to complete changes.

“It was an aggressive and ambitious time line to give the department one year to address each recommendation,” Gov. Carney said on Tuesday. “That time line was intended to create a sense of urgency, but it’s not the end. Frankly, it’s just the beginning.

“(Tuesday’s) report documents measurable progress on 40 of the 41 recommendations and considerable effort around that last difficult one around overtime here at James T. Vaughn.”

What was implemented?

The final report broke the 40 recommendations implemented into four categories: Strengthening officer safety and training, recruitment and retention of officers, modernizing operations and improving programs and services for inmates.

To add safety and training, the final report notes that 1,200 officers completed a mandatory 6-hour training with Wilmington University staff in the areas of risk management, deescalation skills, communication skills and cultural competency.

Some of the other changes in that category include: the addition of less-than-lethal weapons and defensive gear for officers, a JTVCC staff recognition program, a mandatory mentorship program for experienced correctional officers to train new ones and conducting performance reviews and feedback sessions or officers.

To drive recruitment and retention, the final report notes that the governor and General Assembly were able to negotiate a starting salary increase to $43,000. Additionally, administrators claim a career ladder and revised promotional standards (which haven’t been updated since 1987) are being implemented.

The DOC is also now offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus for new correctional officers and a $1,000 referral bonus to existing staff who refer successful candidates. Two new recruiters were also hired on during the last year — Mr. Phelps notes that their efforts alone have brought in 62 new correctional officers.

Administrators are also expanding their reach to a younger audience by appealing to high school students — their first-ever Youth Cadet Academy held its inaugural class last week with 15 interested students “graduating.”

The three-day summer course was intended to introduce students considering a career in law enforcement to the DOC’s basic functions.

To modernize operations, the final report says over the last year hundreds of cameras have been installed in Vaughn prison over the past 10 months. A new “Corrections Intelligence Operation Center,” which will allow trained intelligence analysts to proactively monitor cameras, is planned for the coming months as well.

Showcasing the new security cameras during a tour of the prison on Tuesday, Vaughn Warden Dana Metzger said the equipment is allowing staff to more closely monitor the institution and is expanding their capabilities.

Incidentially, it’s also proved useful when settling inmate grievances.

“The cameras actually help foster trust,” said Warden Metzger. “Now it’s not just the inmates or correctional officers who are telling a story, we have the capability to go back and get closer to the truth better than we ever have before. There can be training opportunities there, too.”

To add programs and services for inmates, DOC administrators say they’ve added new job-training sections like culinary arts, horticulture and automotive repair to their offerings. They’ve also invested in the “Prison Arts Program” and are enlisting the help of various non-profit groups to run programs like Victims Voices Heard, Alternatives to Violence Program, Gamblers Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Echoes of Joy Choir and the Kings Garden Project.

Perhaps the biggest program change was the introduction of a new Inmate Advisory Council — a 10-inmate council that meets monthly with Warden Metzger and his staff to “foster discussion and problem-solving” between inmates and correctional officers. The DOC also completed a health care services review with NCCHC Resources, Inc. — a third party contractor. And, a review of their inmate grievance process is allegedly underway.

There are also plans to give inmates access to Wi-Fi enabled tablets to give them access to more educational programming, the law library, a grievance-filing system and recreational material.

Though Mr. Klopp is impressed with the sweeping changes the DOC has made in only a year’s time, he says he isn’t alone in both hoping that a more substantial pay raise is in the future and that administrators follow through with “plans” they set fourth in the final report.

“The changes they’ve made for recruitment and retention are steps in the right direction, but I’ve been saying forever that it all comes down to salary,” said Mr. Klopp.

“This is only going to get harder as the economy continues to improve, people are going to make more money at less demanding jobs elsewhere so there won’t be a big enough incentive to become a correctional officer.

“Also, there are a few things in the report that are more a plan at this point than something being implemented. For instance, the career ladder for officers is something that was agreed on, but at this point, there has been zero implementation of it.”

Where are the inmates charged with the Feb. 1 riot?

Last October, it was announced that sixteen inmates were facing murder charges for the death of Lt. Steven Floyd, along with two other inmates, being charged with kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting during the Feb. 1 2017 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Shortly after the charges were announced, it was discovered, through the use of the state’s inmate locator platform, that the DOC had moved nine of the indicted inmates to Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington and the remaining nine to Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown.

The eighteen charged inmates were arraigned later in November.

As of Monday, both the Department of Justice and Public Defender’s Office noted that the inmates are currently still awaiting trial. Date and venues of the trials were unknown to them.

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

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