Commentary: Delaware must do better with its correctional system

You have to know justice before you can provide justice. In other words: “No justice, if you don’t know justice.” And, when we know better, we’ll do better.

After a couple of years of observation, investigation and advocating, I have reached the conclusion that the challenges and problems in the Delaware correctional system are directly related to the lack of leadership and desire for fundamental change within the system.

I ask this question, “If the correctional system does not fairly and adequately address internal issues, then how can it foster justice and provide the same to inmates and clients of the correctional system in Delaware?”

For over 10 years, the top appointed leadership has been a revolving door from other areas of state government, while the immediate leaders from within the Department of Correction have remained consistent.

The staffing levels remain critical with few recruits and graduates. Since the change in salary and other financial support over the last couple of years, the situation still remains inadequate. The number of overtime hours and those “frozen” in place remains high. Studies and recommendations have yielded talk but no real significant action or improvement.

Ruth Briggs King

Employees who file grievances reportedly face reprisal and retaliation. Claims of discrimination, unfair labor practices and other alleged concerns remain unanswered for extended periods. It’s an exercise in futility if the state expects to recruit and, more importantly, retain quality employees who witness and experience the direct impact of nepotism, cronyism and discrimination in the workplace.

In the halls of our state capitol, we continue to hear the need for criminal justice “reform,” with many competing ideas for improvements in the First State. I support reform efforts that focus on rehabilitation, prepared re-entry, re-licensing and expungement for certain offenses, while making sure we, in no way, minimize the experiences of victims.

Survivors of crimes often endure trauma and their own type of mental “prison sentence” that could last a lifetime. We should never lose sight of protecting the many, many victims of crimes in Delaware.

True criminal justice reform starts from within the correctional system. We must first focus on making improvements within the walls of our prisons by addressing the issues mentioned above. A strong system has strong and effective leaders who empower their staff and support them by addressing the concerns that have been raised. With the recent announcement of Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps that he will retire in July, it is incumbent upon Gov. Carney to use this as an opportunity to reach for a better outcome for the system.

As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, I look forward to continuing to do my part by keeping a spotlight on the funding issues and, in particular, to make sure the needs and concerns of correctional staff are addressed in the most effective and efficient ways possible.

Throughout the budget hearing process, I have been very vocal about the need to ensure all contracts for mental health, medical, and counseling services are done separately through a Request for Proposal (RFP) and bidding process.

Currently, one company has the contracts for all such services and those contracts have been renewed. This leads to potentially poor outcomes and no accountability. I believe the contracts need to be independent of one another, instead of being “bundled” together.

As always, I vow to do better after knowing better.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs King represents the 37th District, comprised of Georgetown and Long Neck.

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