Key Delaware lawmakers oppose ‘shell game’ of moving prisoners out of state

James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware (WHYY, file)

James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware (WHYY, file)

Some key Delaware lawmakers have sent a letter to Gov. John Carney, hoping to dissuade him from moving hundreds of higher-security prison inmates out of state because of a chronic prison guard shortage.

WHYY reported last month that Carney, who is looking to reduce $400,000 a week in corrections overtime, is mulling the mass move of up to 600 inmates in a medium-maximum security unit at the Delaware’s largest prison for men, the Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

The key reason is that, despite raising the staring salary to $43,000 for correctional officers, nearly one in seven of those jobs are vacant.

Now the chairs of the state Senate and House Corrections Committees are weighing in with their opposition.

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“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 authors are state Reps. James “J.J.” Johnson and Larry Mitchell — chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Corrections Committee — and Senate Corrections and Public Safety Committee chair Bruce Ennis.

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. “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.”

Many of the older prisoners are no longer a threat, Ennis said.

“On the ‘pops issue,’ I call it, where individuals are sick and elderly and no longer a harm to society, we ought to put those people before the board of parole, if necessary, to see if they qualify for release,’’ he said.

Carney hasn’t responded to their letter and would not agree to an interview on the issue.

But spokesman Jonathan Starkey told WHYY Friday in a written statement that, “We intend to keep legislators fully involved in this process as we consider all options to make our facilities safer for officers and inmates.”

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