Union president says takeover ‘was preventable’

 

Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp answers questions at a press briefing on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — With the benefit of hindsight, one could say Geoff Klopp, the president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, saw this coming and raised the alarm — several times. The recent uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Sgt. Steven Floyd Sr. dead and three other hostages with injuries ranging from bruises and lacerations to broken bones and orbital sockets “was preventable,” said Mr. Klopp.

As recently as Dec. 25, Delaware State News spoke to Mr. Klopp about recent assaults against guards raising concerns about prison staffing. At the time, he said:

“I’ve been in corrections for 28 years and all the signals are pointing to something terrible happening in one of these facilities (Delaware state prisons). We’ve got over 200 people set to start retiring next year starting on Jan. 1. 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.”

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, it was clear that for Mr. Klopp, this was an instance where he hated being right.

“I want to be clear, Stg. Floyd didn’t have to die yesterday,” he said. “We’d been asking for help from the previous governor and we’d got none.”

Mr. Klopp said it was the COAD’s belief that this prison takeover took place because issues like staffing shortages, employee wages, retention and excessive overtime weren’t addressed by former Gov. Jack Markell’s administration. These are the same issues cited by Mr. Klopp in the Delaware State News articles in December and August. In the August story, Mr. Klopp was quoted as saying: “As far as I’m concerned, we’re in crisis mode.”

Referencing an alleged conversation with Ann Visalli, former director of the Delaware Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Klopp said he’d been turned away without effort made toward a solution.

“We struggle to understand why the Department of Corrections leadership chooses to say that they have 90 vacancies with a $22 million overtime budget,” he said. “In a conversation with Ann Visalli, she told me that they were making a conscious decision to pay overtime because it was cheaper (than hiring new staff).”

During the press conference, Mr. Klopp made reference to the lack of progress seen from investigations and reviews that took place following the use of deadly force against inmate Scott Miller who took a counselor hostage and raped her in Building 24, of the same prison back in July 2004:

“A task force was put together to make recommendations, and they did, but none of them were ever implemented,” he said.

Mr. Klopp also feels that recent procedural changes in the prison actually helped contribute to creating an environment where an uprising could happen.

“The ACLU agreement that Governor Markell had us implement in November has made our jobs more taxing without any more staff,” he said. “Inmates are required to get more time out of their cells and we don’t have the staff to do it and there are several concerns with the ACLU agreements that are empowering the inmates.”

Above the unheeded warnings, Mr. Klopp believes there were tangible signs that the Department of Corrections should have responded more vigorously to — inmates’ probing for weaknesses being chief among them.

“There have been recent dry runs at the facility where the inmates were testing and prodding to see where weak points are,” he said. “The inmates have a false code just to see what our response is going to be, just to test to see what’s going to happen so they can make adjustments for what they want to do in the future.”

Returning to work will be difficult for correctional officers in the state, especially the 600 who work at the James T. Vaughn prison, Mr. Klopp said, but they are committed to “protecting their brothers and sisters.”

Back in the Delaware State New’s December article on the prison staffing shortage, Mr. Klopp offered then Gov.-elect Carney a grim warning which sounds bleaker now that something “terrible” has indeed happened:

“They’ve (Markell administration) left Carney with a mess,” he said at the time. “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.”

Despite his disappointment with the previous administration, Mr. Klopp believes that there is reason to hope the newly minted Gov. Carney may offer more assistance, claiming to have had constructive conversations with him before he took office Jan. 17. Nevertheless, the COAD renewed their warnings by issuing an ultimatum via press release Thursday afternoon:

“Our desperate calls for staffing, recruitment and retention have gone unanswered by the Markell Administration. We call upon Governor Carney and the General Assembly to make significant progress immediately. To that end, no later than May 1st we will demand action legislatively and contractually so that needless loss of life does not occur again.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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