COMMENTARY: Prison reform not moving at ‘lighting speed’

The recent article: “Governor’s Aide Says Effort at Prison Reform Moving at Lightning Speed” (Oct. 8), should not lead anyone to think real reform is on the way. There have been many promises of real prison reform in Delaware over the last 20 years; none were kept.

The number of complaints from inmates and their families about serious neglect and mistreatment of inmates has not slowed, but increased, along with the serious nature of the complaints. Many inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions are getting little or no care. They are being denied medical appointments and tests for serious medical conditions, and many of their grievances about these issues are being approved at levels as high as the DOC Bureau Chief. However, prison medical staff regularly ignore the successful grievances, and continue to deny care.

Prison can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions of all types in the best settings. But when inmates are beaten, threatened, isolated, and denied necessities of life, as has happened at JTVCC for the last nine months, the demand for mental health care skyrockets. Yet they are getting little more than suicide screenings from the medical provider. To add to the anxiety, DOC has been taking inmates, without their consent, to the courthouse to be interrogated about the JTVCC matter (the February uprising) without an attorney present.

“One of Gov. Carney’s biggest priorities is improving prison conditions,” said Ms. (Claire) DeMatteis. We will know how big a priority it is by the amount of state resources directed that way, and by any structural and leadership changes that occur. The hiring of Air Force Lt. Col. Dana Metzger, from outside of Delaware DOC, as the new warden of JTVCC, is promising, given DOC’s proclivity to promote its own. We believe that consistency toward inmates and corrections staff in enforcing rules of conduct and discipline, is crucial to improving prison conditions for both. Warden Metzger’s background suggests that he will push consistency.

Increased training for correctional officers and collaboration with Del Tech when hiring new recruits, are good ideas, as is the establishment of an 11-member “Inmate Advisory Council” and appointing a former inmate as head of the Council on Corrections. All these things are not nearly enough to bring effective prison reform. There must be accountability for the officers who brutalized inmates at JTVCC on Feb. 2 and thereafter. The failure to do so tells inmate that double standards are still intact. The same applies to new money spent on correctional officer programs. If there is no money to bring back inmate education and vocational training, or provide inmates other opportunities, inmates’ frustrations will increase.

From everything we see and hear from inmates, their loved ones, and some DOC staff, one thing moving at lightning speed is the denial that serious prison abuse occurs. As one recent article put it: “significant improvements can be made not only with broad and sweeping new laws, but by holding people accountable for their actions, one at a time”. We call upon the United States Attorney for Delaware and the Attorney General of Delaware to do exactly that: enforce the law inside those walls, to bring to light what so many choose to ignore.

Stephen Hampton of Dover is an attorney with Grady and Hampton LLC. Ken Abraham of Dover is a former prosecutor and founder of Citizens for Criminal JUSTICE.

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