Delaware senate committee hears about conditions inside Vaughn prison [video]

 (Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

(Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

Stories of short staffed prisons as well as overworked and underpaid correctional officers were part of the testimony heard at Legislative Hall in Dover.

On Thursday, Delaware legislators held a public hearing to get a better idea of prison working conditions in an effort to implement change. Senators Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington) and Anthony Delcollo (R-Elsemere) conducted the hearing with about a dozen witnesses coming forward. Geoffrey Klopp, head of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware said the hearing could be the first step to improving working conditions for prison staff in the state.

“We do a job that a lot of folks don’t want to do and we need to be compensated fairly,” Klopp said.

According to testimonies current and retired staff of the James Vaughn Correctional Center, officers are not paid well. The starting salary for officers is $32,000. Klopp said that accounts for the high turnover at Delaware prisons.

“Our 15 year average loss is 57 percent of the people that we hire-we lose in the first three years of employment,” Klopp added. He estimated that the state is wasting about $3 million a year on the hiring process as result.

“Another number that is extremely interesting is the fact that we lose approximately 90 percent of the applicants because they’re washed out due to background checks and mental health evaluations,” Klopp said.

In February inmates took over a section of the Smyrna prison. The death of Lt. Steven Floyd was the result of that incident which created a very different work environment today said Klopp.

“It’s extremely tense and tedious right now because we don’t have enough staff and we’re almost day-to-day as to how we get through things,” Klopp said.

The union president added that a settlement agreement put together by the ACLU which deals with restrictive housing and mental health care presents a danger to correctional officers. However, ACLU officials disagreed and released this statement immediately after the public hearing.

“We understand that the hostage crisis and the death of Lt. Floyd has been a traumatic experience for everyone associated with the DDOC. But statements being made by the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) and individual correctional officers that the settlement agreement “turned control of our prison facilities over to inmates” or was “basically telling the inmates that they didn’t have to listen to the officers” is unequivocally false,” said Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware executive director.

As for the testimonies, the stories people shared touched on a number of topics. Eleanor Ricchuti, a retired officer who worked at the James Vaughn Correctional Center until 2013 spoke on bad apples in the prison system. She said there’s a need for change across the board which is bigger than just salary increases and staffing issues.

“In order to have officers that care, you have to have management that care for you,” Ricchuti said. “There’s so much dysfunction up there, it’s pathetic and I feel for the good people that go there and can’t speak up because if they do they will lose their job.”

Another spoke on behalf of the inmates. Nancy Boyer said she visited the Smyrna facility over the last 15 years and witnessed significant change in the officer-inmate relationship.

“What I am hoping in this, as you all make decisions and move forward with policy that you would take seriously the grievances filed by the inmates,” Boyer firmly expressed to Sen. Marshall and Sen. Delcollo.

But most were advocates for the officers.

“We’ve been screaming for help for a long time and nobody has listened. It took us losing an officer for us to have this conversation which is very unfortunate,” said Aaron Forkom.

Meanwhile Senator Delcollo said the next thing is to review comments and move forward after investigations into the hostage situations are completed.

“Frankly I believe that there is no reason if we’re not working aggressively as to the pre-existing problems that we can’t try to do something this general assembly. I think that’s an audacious goal,” Delcollo said.

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