Delaware confirms move of hundreds of inmates to Pennsylvania

Delaware is moving up to 330 inmates to Pennsylvania for up to two years to reduce mandatory overtime for officers and improve morale. (WHYY, file)

Delaware is moving up to 330 inmates to Pennsylvania for up to two years to reduce mandatory overtime for officers and improve morale. (WHYY, file)

The Carney administration, confirming what WHYY first reported nearly three months ago, is moving hundreds of inmates out of Delaware to save money on overtime for correctional officers.

The announcement came Wednesday at 3 p.m., just hours after WHYY, acting on a source’s tip, asked the state if officials had begun moving prisoners to Pennsylvania facilities.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will accept up to 330 inmates over the next two years at a cost of $123 per day per prisoner, Delaware prisons spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said in a news release.

The purpose, Gravell wrote, is to enhance public safety, decrease overtime for guards and improve their “work life balance.”

Under a practice known as “freezing” correctional officers in place, the state was spending $400,000 a week on overtime last year, according to an auditor’s report. The mandatory overtime that keeps an officer in place after a shift ends does boost paychecks, but it also saps energy and morale of the officers responsible for keeping the prisons safe.

If all the prisoners were immediately transferred and stayed in Pennsylvania for the full two years, the program would cost the state $29.6 million.

That’s $44,800 a year per inmate — about $2,900 less than the state now spends per inmate and detentioner in its Level 5 facilities.

The transfers will take place over several months, wrote Gravell, who added that Pennsylvania “has many facilities where inmates transferred from Delaware may be housed. But both states will remain conscious of the importance of strong support systems and will make an effort to place Delaware inmates in prisons that do not require excessive travel time in order to facilitate visitation.”

Inmates who will be transferred cannot be involved in active litigation and must have more than five years remaining on their sentence.

“The inmates will return to Delaware to complete their sentences when the correctional officer vacancy rate is projected to be significantly lower,” wrote Gravell, who noted that there are now 237 guard vacancies out of 1,910 positions.

Gov. John Carney has repeatedly refused to be interviewed on the topic, but Wednesday issued a statement on the transfer, which was opposed by some key lawmakers.

“We have heard loud and clear that the high levels of mandatory overtime in Delaware’s prisons creates hardships for correctional officers and real security concerns inside our correctional facilities,’’ Carney’s statement said.

“We have an obligation to address those concerns head on — and this new agreement with the state of Pennsylvania will do just that. To be clear, this is a temporary measure aimed at making our correctional facilities more safe and secure for officers and inmates.”

Reducing mandatory overtime was a key recommendation of an independent panel that reviewed the circumstances that led up to a prison uprising on Feb. 1, 2017, that left correctional Lt. Steven Floyd dead. Sixteen inmates have been charged with murder and other charges in that case, and three are now on trial. Two other inmates are charged with lesser offenses.

This year the state increased the starting salary for a prison guard to $43,000. New hires are also eligible for signing and retention bonuses of up to $3,000.

Gravell said Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps would not be available for an interview Wednesday, but issued a statement from Phelps in which he echoed the governor.

“We remain focused on improving safety for correctional officers and inmates in all of Delaware’s correctional facilities,” Phelps’ statement said. “Reducing mandatory overtime will provide relief for Delaware’s correctional officers, and help make our facilities safer for officers and inmates.”

In September, the chairs of the state Senate and House Corrections Committees voiced their opposition in a letter to the governor. The authors were state Reps. James “J.J.” Johnson and Larry Mitchell — who were then chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Corrections Committee — and Senate Corrections and Public Safety Committee chair Bruce Ennis. Johnson did not seek re-election Tuesday.

“We believe that, rather than potentially move hundreds of Delaware residents to prisons in other states, it is more productive long-term to continue addressing the chronic understaffing of our correctional facilities,” the letter said.

“Moving inmates to out-of-state prisons will only mask that problem … If we want to address our prison population, then there are more long-term and beneficial solutions than the shell game of shipping our overflow problem to other states.”

The letter suggested several options to address the quandary, such as “contracting out’’ the officer jobs to an employment agency to fill vacancies and reducing the number of older prisoners and those held on bail – who make up about 40 percent of the 5,400 inmates and detainees.

The lawmakers also said Delaware should handle its own problems, rather than send them to another state.

“We felt that it should be addressed in-house,’’ Johnson told WHYY then. “We have some people in there that haven’t been to trial yet, and the only reason they are being detained is because they can’t make bail.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.