Delaware offers bonuses, higher salary to fill 260 prison guard vacancies

Delaware is offering $3,000 signing bonuses to new correctional officers. In this photo, Gov. John Carney (center, in dark suit) attends a memorial service for Lt. Steven Floyd, who was killed during an uprising by prison inmates in February 2017. (John Jankowski/for WHYY)

Delaware is offering $3,000 signing bonuses to new correctional officers. In this photo, Gov. John Carney (center, in dark suit) attends a memorial service for Lt. Steven Floyd, who was killed during an uprising by prison inmates in February 2017. (John Jankowski/for WHYY)

In yet another effort to fill 260 vacancies among state correctional officers, Delaware has reinstituted a $3,000 incentive program for new recruits.

The initiative, first used successfully from 2004 to 2008, is designed to reduce mandatory overtime and employee burnout at short-staffed prisons.

New officers will get $1,500 when they complete the Correctional Employee Initial Training Academy. They will have to wait 18 months to get the second $1,500 installment, however, and won’t get that money if they resign or get terminated during that time, said Jennifer Biddle, bureau chief of administrative services at the Department of Correction.

In addition, the department is offering a $1,000 referral incentive for any existing employee whose candidates are successfully hired. That award is also split into two payments 18 months apart.

The incentive program is being re-launched in advance of another pay increase for new correctional officers that will take effect July 1 and pay them about the same salary for a starting teacher in many Delaware school districts.

New correctional officers will now start at $43,000 a year, up from $40,000 this year and $34,500 two years ago.

DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said in a written release that he hoped the effort will “increase application submissions and reduce our vacancy rate.”

That rate is currently 14 percent — 260 unfilled jobs out of 1,877 authorized positions, Biddle told WHYY.

Biddle said that when vacancies are high, as they are now, officers on 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift could get “frozen” if somebody calls in sick or no one is available to cover that post. “And they are working 16 hours,” Biddle said.

‘Domino effect’ from mass vacancies

Beyond endangering facility security, rampant vacancies also have the potential to close programs and other services, such as visitation, that require guard oversight, she said.

“So it’s a domino effect with the high vacancy rate,’’ Biddle said. “It leads to stress on officers and their families, and the offenders.”

The DOC spends $800,000 on overtime every two weeks — the highest in Delaware government — according to a May 2017 report by state auditor Tom Wagner.

The bulk of that overtime is for correctional officers, who are responsible for keeping in order in facilities that currently house 7,759 prisoners.

Gov. John Carney has been grappling with how to improve correctional security since a riot at the state prison near Smyrna less than two weeks after he was inaugurated left one guard dead. Sixteen prisoners are now awaiting trial for Lt. Steven Floyd’s alleged murder, and the Carney administration recently settled a lawsuit by Floyd’s family and six other officers held hostage during the siege for $7.5 million.

Carney touted the higher starting salary and incentive program as “critical to the safety of correctional officers and inmates. We’ll remain committed to this effort over the long term, and these new incentives are another positive step in the right direction.”

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, agreed. “This will make us competitive enough to attract quality applicants and get the needle moving forward on staff issues,” he said.

An independent review into the deadly 20-hour uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center found that staff shortages and burnout among correctional officers were contributing factors.

The DOC is also continuing to work with the officers’ union to study ways to help recruit and retain officers and cut mandatory overtime, officials said.

The department also used the announcement of the incentive program to solicit prospective employees, urging anyone interested to submit an application at www.delawarestatejobs.com.

Biddle said another reason for the hiring and referral incentives is to keep pace with similar efforts in nearby states.

“We’re trying to stay competitive, particularly with the state of Maryland, which is offering a $5,000 signing bonus,’’ she said. “Our applicant pool has decreased over the last several years.”

Klopp said the key is to remain competitive financially not only with prison guard salaries in nearby states, but also with police agencies, especially municipal ones, within Delaware.

“We’ve had this problem for years, losing people, but now we have the problem of not being able to attract people,” he said. “What’s important is now we’re going to be able to attract people. It’s just as important that once we get people we’re able to keep them.”

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