Vaughn prison staffing study: 137 more officers needed

DOVER — Results from a long-awaited staffing study conducted at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna show that the prison needs nearly 150 correctional officers to function at an optimal staff.

According to the Department of Correction’s Department Staffing Analysis Team (DSAT), 137 additional correctional officers are recommended for the state’s largest maximum security prison.

As of Friday, the DOC already was carrying 224 correctional officer vacancies across the department. The addition of the recommended positions brings that number to 361.

The results were just released Thursday despite the fact that the analysis was finished over seven months ago. According to the DOC, the study started on July 10, 2017, and concluded last December. However, when pressed multiple times by this newspaper, DOC administration noted that the results were not ready to be distributed to the public.

In response to the staffing study results, DOC leadership claims it will “continue to strengthen officer recruitment and retention efforts,” however they’re aren’t plans to request additional positions until the Fiscal Year 2020 budget submission or until the “vacancy level reaches 50 or fewer positions.” As of Friday, the DOC is expecting to request 68 additional correctional officer positions for FY20. The estimated cost for all 137 of the recommended positions is $4,059,482. This amount includes new officers authorized and funded in the FY19 budget.

“I’m thankful to the members of the DSAT team who meticulously completed this months-long process,” DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said in a statement. “This information will provide a roadmap for ensuring our resources are deployed most efficiently and effectively. I’m proud of the DOC family and the work they perform daily.”

According to DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell, Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and Sussex Correctional Institution are the next two prisons where staffing studies will take place, but they “are not scheduled yet.”

DOC’s recruitment efforts

In the wake of the Feb. 1 2017, inmate uprising that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead and the subsequent Governor-ordered independent report, the DOC has been scrambling to address chronic, long-term understaffing issues.

Since the Feb. 1 incident, correctional officers’ starting salaries were raised to $43,000, a “career ladder” has been implemented, a $3,000 sign-on bonus and $1,000 referral bonus have been added and two full-time recruiters were hired to help increase retention and drive new recruits to open positions.

The level of success resulting from these measures remains unclear.

In mid-April, the DOC welcomed its largest academy class in three years with 51 cadets (45 of whom were training to become correctional officers). However, that class, Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) academy class No. 226, only graduated 38 of the 51 last week — constituting a more than 25 percent dropout rate. Of those graduates, only 30 are new correctional officers.

The next CEIT class doesn’t start until July 19. Ms. Gravell noted that as of Friday, 50 new cadets accepted offers to enroll in the next academy class.

Trouble ahead

Feeling vindicated by the recently released staffing study, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) president Geoff Klopp claimed the results confirm what he’s long said about the DOC’s reported number of vacant correctional officer positions. Namely, that the “true number” is much higher.

Pointing out the officers are currently working approximately 17,000 hours of overtime per week departmentwide, Mr. Klopp said the COAD’s math suggests that the actual number of vacant positions is closer to 500. He said he suspects the upcoming staffing studies at the rest of the DOC’s facilities will likely bear that calculation out.

“We’re losing around 12 correctional officers per month,” he said. “With the academies being 11-week courses, we’re not even at a replacement rate. We’ve made some progress, but it’s not sufficient. We literally have zero cadets in the academy right now until July 19.”

Mr. Klopp also said that upcoming retirement pose the risk of spiking the number of correctional officers the department loses on a monthly base, exacerbating the understaffing situation.

Pointedly, he said if drastic changes aren’t made before next April — when a recently-passed 12-week paid parental leave law for state employees takes affect — “disaster” looms.

“We understand the need and importance of family bonding, but this law has the potential to further cripple a department that already can’t safely function,” said Mr. Klopp. “It further incentivizes taking 12 weeks off by including pay. There will be no rush for anyone to come back to work that way. We have to get out in front of it this year, because if drastic changes don’t take place, we won’t be able to staff the prisons— period.”

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