New head of Delaware’s prisons says little steps can lead to big changes

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Claire DeMatteis

Claire DeMatteis (State of Delaware)

Delaware’s state prison system has new leadership.

Claire DeMatteis replaces Perry Phelps as commissioner of the Department of Correction.

Following a prison uprising in Smyrna in 2017, DeMatteis worked with Phelps to implement recommendations to address safety and security, inmate treatment, and staffing problems.

As she guides deep and permanent changes at the department, DeMatteis draws from a number of experiences: a brief stint at Delaware’s Department of Labor to neutralize a data breach and her background as counsel in corporate governance and health care. She also worked alongside Joe Biden when he was a U.S. senator, helping him draft legislation on issues involving law enforcement and health care.

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WHYY’s Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spoke with DeMatteis after “swearing-in day.” Lynn asked her about her versatility in Delaware leadership.

When Governor [John] Carney was elected, I’d been working as general counsel of a company based in New York. I did expect that I would be helpful to him as, you know, a utility player, the so-called sixth man, in that I would be tasked to certain state agencies with issues that the governor wanted solved. You know one of the greatest compliments when I left the Department of Labor after only four months was a woman said to me, ‘You just get stuff done.’ And that’s a good reputation to have.

Reforms at the Department of Correction are the result of what went down on Feb. 1, 2017, the day inmates took control. It was one of the buildings at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, a state prison for men. Correctional officers were held hostage. One officer was killed and another injured. You have many high-priority items as commissioner: safety and security, boosting recruitment and retention of staff, modernizing operations and intelligence, education opportunities, job training and counseling for inmates, which ties in with a comprehensive reentry plan. What has changed about that?

What has changed now is our reentry efforts. The very first week an offender enters a facility, they get an educational assessment and they get a vocational skills training assessment. So if they’ve only had up to 10th grade of education, we know for the duration of their sentence we have to get them a GED. Same with vocational skills training. If they walk into our facility with, say, electrical training as an electrician, then how can we use that skill in our facility? Or do they want to get training as, say, a welder, so that when they leave our facility they can enter a trade and get a job and be a productive member of our communities, versus returning to crime.

I know Delaware’s attorney general is investigating the state prison system medical contractor for treatment of the prisoners. There were some allegations of forging prisoner health documents. Is Connections Community Support Programs, the group in question, is that a train wreck? Does it reek of civil rights violations. 

Civil rights violations is clearly something for the attorney general to determine — not me as commissioner. We are taking a hard look at the medical contract. None of us like the reports that we’re seeing. It’s unacceptable. I also don’t want to paint the entire Connections community as bad medical professionals if it’s just a couple bad apples. I don’t think that’s fair. We are focused on the fact that we need to do a better job delivering medical care, mental health services, and drug treatment to inmates. And as commissioner I will be taking a very hard look at that contract.

It’s one thing to change policy; it’s another thing to change culture in this enforcement community. What do you think needs to change in order for reforms to take hold in terms of culture? 

Culture change is one small step at a time, and when you string along a few really smart good changes, it builds into a culture change. I’ve seen in my two years here very strong positive steps towards improving communications, improving transparency. But we’ve got to keep at it.

And this field is a field where there are probably very few women in leadership roles. What has the work culture been like for you so far? 

No problem at all. I think in all positions I’ve held — whether it’s in politics, federal government, or large corporations — people respect you regardless of your gender if you go in and you’re confident and you have a plan and you deliver results, and that’s what I’m focused on.

And finally, you’re among some of those who can say they have been part of Joe Biden’s special circle when he was U.S. senator. Have you maintained a connection with Biden in the years since you worked for him as senior counsel, which was in the mid-’90s to about 2004?

We joke in the Biden world that you don’t leave. You just move on and serve from the outside. And I stayed very close to him all through his White House years. I’ve learned a lot about leadership and loyalty from Joe Biden. I respect him like I respect a few other people — what he’s been through in his life and the way he puts family as a priority is certainly how I live my life, and I certainly have stayed close to him since moving on in 2004.

Well, thank you for your time today and best of luck. 

Thank you very much, Jennifer.

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