Understaffed prisons raise new concerns

Geoff Klopp

DOVER — Twenty-eight fresh cadets are enrolled in the Department of Correction’s training academy class that kicked off on Thursday.

The group will traverse the nine-week program aimed at preparing them to work in a prison, graduate and then receive a post.

The current class of 20 cadets is set to graduate on Nov. 22. This academy system has long fed the ranks that staff Delaware’s prisons.

However, it has been, is and will be insufficient to stave off a staffing “crisis” in the near future, says Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) president Geoff Klopp.

A governor-ordered independent review of prison conditions released in September and a state auditor analysis of overtime pay released in May both indicate chronic correctional officer short-staffing issues as well.

As of last week, the DOC confirmed that the agency currently has 265 vacant correctional officer positions. Mr. Klopp believes the real number to be much higher.

“This just comes from the dead reckoning of the overtime numbers,” he said. “The DOC is currently doing a staffing study at JTVCC (James T. Vaughn Correctional Center) and I know that it’s going to indicated that we need over 100 extra officers at that prison alone not accounted for in the 265 the DOC is reporting. Then the DOC is going to complete the rest of its staffing studies that will show we need at least another 150 more officers across the other prisons.”

Although he’s estimating, there is precedent for the claim. Last December, a DOC staffing study 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.

“Baylor is the smallest level-five facility in the state,” said Mr. Klopp. “These studies will easily come up with another 200 to 250 more officers needed between Vaughn, SCI (Sussex Correctional Institution), Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and the three level four facilities in the state.”

On Wednesday, Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the DOC, confirmed that the staffing study was still underway at JTVCC and that results would likely be finalized before the end of the year.

Burnout rates

These numbers aside, Mr. Klopp said the situation is exacerbated by upcoming retirements and “burnout” rates.

“We have approximately 325 people that are eligible to retire next year,” he said. “How many will retire when they become eligible varies from person to person, but I can say for certain that the retirement numbers over the next three years will be very significant. We’re already losing about 15 correctional officers per month to retirement or quitting.”

As of the end of October, 205 correctional series employees have separated from the DOC this year, confirmed the agency. If averaged, that would make the number of correctional officers lost per month: 20. Ms. Gravell, said that a surge in the number of officers leaving in the wake of the deadly Feb. 1 inmate uprising at JTVCC partly accounts for this.

“There was a spike immediately following the incident, but the numbers over the past several months are on par with previous years,” she said.

As of the end of October, 163 new correctional officers were hired by the DOC — this is 42 shy of even a replacement hiring rate for an already “understaffed” position. Mr. Klopp notes that the academy pipeline that turns out new correctional officers is nowhere close to stemming the shortage.

Of the 20 cadets set to graduate on Nov. 22, he says only 17 are actual correctional officers — the remaining 3 are other new staff that requires training like maintenance workers or counselors. Last December, a class of 36 cadets was enrolled in the academy with an anticipate 40 to start in January.

“We stayed in the high 30s before, but numbers were starting to slip in the academy even before Feb. 1,” said Mr. Klopp. “The economy is getting a little better and there are job opportunities that pay more and are less stressful and dangerous, so we’re not financially competitive.”

State of emergency

Fretting the future, Mr. Klopp wonders what it will take before the DOC or the Gov. John Carney call for a state of emergency.

“Between the actual vacancies, upcoming retirements, the rate we’re losing correctional officers and low amount of cadets in the academy, we could be looking at nearly 800 correctional officer vacancies in the next year or so,” he said. “When does the governor’s office or the DOC consider this unsafe and unsustainable? What’s the tipping point?”

In response to questions about emergency-level responses, Jonathan Starkey, spokesman for the governor’s office said policy restricts sharing details.
“The DOC has an emergency operations plan,” he said. “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on details of that plan.”

The DOC also said they couldn’t discuss specifics.

In April, this paper reported that the DOC had a “routine” meeting with the Delaware National Guard to discuss “emergency preparedness.” At the time, Lt. Col. Len Gratteri, a National Guard spokesman who sat in on the meeting, said that, if needed, the agency could quickly provide manpower and equipment.

“Our director of military support has plans in place for things like riots in one of our cities or nuclear releases — we try to be prepared for anything,” said Lt. Col. Gratteri “The DOC has their own plans for emergencies and we may be one of the resources called upon. What we provide, in general terms, is manpower and equipment.”

Lt. Col. Gratteri noted the National Guard’s role is a support one.

“The requester would ask for personnel with specific skills, and we would ensure we have the right amount of people and that they either already possess those skills, or we would prepare them to standard,” he said. “We have approximately 2,700 men and women with a wide variety of skills, and if needed, we are confident we can support in any situation.”

However, Mr. Klopp wonders how much support the National Guard would be capable of offering in a staffing “crisis” situation.

“If the National Guard comes in to help, they could probably give us about 10 to 15 people per shift because all they can do is work outside perimeter,” he said. “Guardsmen couldn’t go inside in the fence line because they haven’t been trained.”

Mr. Klopp is limited to speculation when it comes to the specifics of an emergency response if one was called for because “if they have a plan, they haven’t shared it with me,” he said.

What’s being done?

A governor-ordered independent review of prison conditions leading up to the deadly Feb. 1 JTVCC inmate uprising noted that issues like communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners all contributed to the incident. However, the point driven home the hardest by the review remains “critically low staffing levels.” The review reads:

“The high rate of turnover at the JTVCC is one of the most concerning observations documented by the Independent Review Team, particularly in light of a vast body of scientific literature on the health and safety risks of burnout. Physical and mental exhaustion not only negatively impact correctional officer safety and wellness, but also pose significant security risks to individuals and the institution.”

When former Family Court judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III released the report in September, Gov. Carney agreed that: “staffing has to be number one.”

Since Feb. 1, the DOC, Gov. Carney and COAD have unveiled a number of different strategies to address systemic ills in the state’s prison system.
“Gov. Carney worked closely with the COAD over the summer to approve raises for officers across experience levels — including a 22 percent increase to starting officer pay,” said Mr. Starkey. “The agreement with COAD also included a new Labor Management Committee that will recommend ways to improve recruitment and retention of officers and decrease the use of mandatory overtime. We are hopeful that an agreement will be reached in the near future on concrete changes we can make.”

Career ladder

The Labor Management Committee, peopled by COAD and DOC representatives, is at work designing a career ladder and other staffing initiatives. Mr. Klopp said the committee’s discussions have been “productive.” They’re expected to submit their recommendations to the governor in early December.

“Working with the General Assembly, the governor also authorized 50 new positions at JTVCC, invested $2 million in new cameras for Vaughn and invested $1.3 million in new equipment to help officers more safely respond to and prevent violent incidents,” said Mr. Starkey. “Separately, the governor appointed a special assistant, Claire DeMatteis, to work with Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, and oversee implementation of recommendations made by the Independent Review team. Ms. DeMatteis will make public reports on progress at six months and 12 months of her appointment. The Governor takes this issue seriously, and will continue to take appropriate action.”

For her part, Ms. DeMatteis has acknowledged that the staff-shortage is a complicated issue unlikely to be entirely solved in just a year.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this: We have a long way to go with filling vacancies and getting ahead of the upcoming retirements,” said Ms. DeMatteis last month. “It’s going to be a serious challenge, but everyone is focused on it.”

Ms. DeMatteis noted that the DOC has hired two new recruiters as well that have gotten more “creative” in attracting correctional officer candidates.

“They’ve been successful in holding job fairs and things like that,” she said. “We’re trying to be more active with recruiting rather than just posting an small ad in the paper. We need to expand our reach.”

Willing to admit that leadership has made steps in the right direction, Mr. Klopp directs the brunt of his criticism not at a lack of effort, but at a lack of results.

“We have 17 new correctional officers coming out of the academy on Nov. 22 and 28 more that just went in on Thursday,” said Mr. Klopp. “At the end of the class, you’ll probably wind up with 25 because of drop-outs — and how many of those will be correctional officers, rather than other staff, I don’t know. These are nine-week classes, but we’re losing at least 15 officers per month. We already have a huge shortage and it’s set to get even bigger. You do the math. What’s being done isn’t working.”

Solutions?

The DOC, the governor’s office and General Assembly appear to be investing in a long game that focuses on systemic reform. But, Mr. Klopp believes that a “simple solution” has been looking the state in the eye for over a decade: salaries.

Gov. Carney saw to it that the starting salary for correctional officers, increased this financial year to $40,000, is set to increase again in fiscal year 2019 to $43,000. Mr. Klopp said that’s not enough.

“It’s a $1,500 pay raise when we can’t even get enough people to fill out applications right now — it’s not enough,” he said. “Surrounding states are paying much more and if someone can make $48,000 a year as a Lewes or Milford town cop, where do you think people are going to apply?”

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. Klopp has repeatedly made the argument over the last year that the amount of overtime already being paid should convince taxpayers that higher salaries would be better than absorbing an “insane” overtime budget.

Overtime pay

In May, the state auditor’s office reported that the DOC gobbled up more than a third of the state’s total overtime pay in fiscal year 2016 and was on course to absorb the same — if not more — in fiscal year 2017.

Of the 2,082 DOC employees who received overtime in fiscal year 2016 approximately 21 percent of the total payroll was comprised of overtime pay. Those employees received about $73 million in regular salary, $9 million in other compensation, and $22 million in overtime — 38 percent of the total amount of overtime budgeted for the entire state government.

The state’s Auditor of Accounts, Thomas Wagner, believes that current DOC salaries are too low to recruit and maintain adequate staffing, which in turn has resulted in the high level of overtime.

“The most fascinating number in the report is the over $800,000 per pay cycle — every two weeks — that is paid in overtime by the DOC,” said Mr. Wagner, a Republican. “I think when you look at that, you see that an adjustment needs to be made in salaries to cut out a lot of that overtime by having more employees. Salaries are absolutely the core of the issue.”

Correctional officers are currently averaging between 16,000 — 17,000 hours of overtime per week, said Mr. Klopp.

“That number has been steadily rising for the last nine months,” he added. “For next week, we’re running 900 8-hour overtime shifts just at JTVCC. I’m afraid that the number will probably rise to 1,000 shifts sometime around the middle of January.”

Without a more substantial boost in starting salaries, Mr. Klopp said the understaffing “crisis” will continue to worsen.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re running a prison or a McDonald’s, if you can’t get qualified applicants who want to work in the position through the door, it’s because your compensation package isn’t attractive enough,” he said. “The big difference is; no one dies if we don’t get our French fries.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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