LETTER TO THE EDITOR: More pay, hiring will prevent prison tragedies

On the afternoon of Feb. 1, I flipped on the television in my Bridgewater, Virginia, college dorm room to see a picture of my hometown on national news.

The hostage situation and eventual murder of Lt. Steven Floyd Jr. at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center hit home for me, even though I was over 200 miles away. I have vivid memories as a 10-year-old of someone escaping from the Smyrna prison and running through my Clayton backyard in the middle of the night.

Living nearby has always made issues of security at James T. Vaughn into personal issues for myself and my family. Therefore, I am very concerned about what our state government plans to do to solve this problem.

Comprehensive reforms in correctional officer pay and hiring are the best way to prevent tragedies such as this from happening again.

The current system of correctional officer employment is arguably ineffective in many distinct ways. The Delaware Department of Correction currently employs 1,800 correctional officers and maintains 90 vacancies. According to an August 2016 Delaware State News article, entitled “Correctional officers union airs concerns: ‘We’re in crisis mode,’” a massive $22 million budget allows for obscene amounts of overtime among overworked employees.

Gov. Jack Markell and his administration did not address staffing changes in the past eight years, and avoidance of this issue should be accepted no longer. According to a State News article entitled “The uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center,” proponents of the current employment system thought it would be cheaper, which is not necessarily true, and furthermore, of all areas to take spending cuts, is prison security truly one that the people of our state would choose?

In a personal interview, Republican Sen. Dave Lawson, who came up with a proposal to resolve the staffing issues, told me that the current system was kept in place simply because it was working, never mind its degree of effectiveness. The Department of Correction has denied that staffing woes played a role in the fateful event in another State News article entitled “Two staffers held hostage at Delaware maximum-security prison.” While the current system has, in the words of Sen. Lawson, been “limping along,” a system that is barely surviving is not one that any Delawarean can stand behind.

This is why drastic action is necessary and needs to happen soon. The longer that time drags on without this problem being addresses in any concrete fashion, the more likely it becomes that another tragedy like this could occur, the brunt of which would be borne by our hardworking correctional officers who are already stretched far too thin.

I spoke at length to Dave Lawson on this issue and voiced my own opinion, which I know he shares. In “The uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center,” Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, insists that he has been advocating for the hiring of more officers for five years. This ongoing problem is at the heart of security issues past, present, and future. Sen. Lawson told me that it is difficult to maintain proper security when officers work multiple shifts upwards of 16 hours, and understandably so. Correctional officers are short-staffed, overworked, and underpaid, and those who say that staffing issues are not the root of the problem are blaming these honorable and dedicated men and women for a tragic event which they did not have the proper resources to prevent.

In another State News article entitled “Pay increase proposed for correctional officers,” Dave Lawson is quoted as he concisely described his plan for comprehensive reform.

His proposal has several parts. First, starting salaries for correctional officers would be raised to $37,000. Next, all current officers will be given a $4,000 raise. This is to help make pay more competitive. One hundred eighty new employees will be hired, making up for the 90 vacancies and more. This plan should cost about $15 million, and additional funds remaining in the DOC’s $22 million overtime budget can be used to sponsor any remaining necessary overtime. When I spoke to Sen. Lawson, he told me that his is absolutely committed to reform, whether it be his described plan or something else. He explained this priority to me in the form of a metaphor: “If you’re going to the movies and your car gets a flat tire, what comes first? Let’s fix the flat tire with the money we have before we go to the movie.”

With all the programs that our state government allocates money to, prison security has certainly dropped to an improper level on the priority list. As a Delawarean who lives close to one of our prisons, this is important to me, as it should be to all. We live in a country that could not be more divided politically, and I, for one, would like to see our state set the example of coming together collectively, by taking bipartisan measures to solve this and other problems in the future. While the deadly hostage situation at James T. Vaughn was a horrific tragedy, we can only hope that it has created the necessary push to unite both parties to create positive change across our state.

Madeline Carlson

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