Political veteran nominated as first woman to run Delaware prisons

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Claire DeMatteis

Claire DeMatteis (State of Delaware)

Delaware Gov. John Carney has turned to a political insider and lawyer to become the first woman to head the beleaguered Department of Correction.

His pick, Claire DeMatteis, appears to be a cinch to get confirmed by the state Senate later this month, a leading lawmaker told WHYY.

A few months after a deadly prison uprising in 2017, Carney named DeMatteis as his special assistant in the prison system. She was hired in June of that year to implement some two dozen reforms recommended by an independent review.

DeMatteis and Carney said they won’t do interviews about her nomination until after her confirmation hearing.

But in a written statement issued with the administration’s announcement of her nomination, the candidate said that if confirmed, she would work “to continue to strengthen safety and security, officer recruitment and retention, and programming and services for inmates, as well as implement a coordinated path of services from an offender’s entry into prison through release back into our communities.”

In the same news release, Carney said that “over three decades of experience in government and the private sector, Claire has worked closely with community leaders, legislators and law enforcement officials and has earned their respect and trust. I have full confidence that Claire’s experience and leadership qualities will serve our state well at the Department of Correction.”

State Sen. Stephanie Hansen lauded DeMatteis and predicted she would sail through to confirmation to the “challenging job in a challenging department.” Hansen is a Democrat and her party outnumbers Republicans 12 to 9 in the Senate.

“She’s a wonderful choice,’’ Hansen said. “She’s been embedded within DOC for quite some time now and she’s been a part of that institution and she understands what’s been going on since that riot. So I think that male or female, regardless, she is absolutely the most qualified person that could be in this position.”

‘We’ve got staffing challenges … safety concerns’

DeMatteis has deep roots in Delaware politics and government. She was senior counsel to former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, when he was a U.S. Senator. She also worked for Republican Gov. Mike Castle.

She also has been a law firm partner and worked as general counsel for both a marketing company and a health insurance company.

“She understands how to get things done and how to work within agencies and work with different people and bring different agencies together,” Hansen said. “She’s been a known quantity for many years. She has a history of competency, of great clarity of thought and thought of being someone that can work and get things done in a high-level position.”

State Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown heads the House corrections committee. She said DeMatteis is already coordinating a prisoner re-entry initiative and is well-equipped to address systemic issues such as overcrowding and chronic turnover. Currently, one in 10 correctional officer jobs is vacant and planning is underway to improve educational and drug treatment programs.

“I think she will be a great asset,’’ Minor-Brown said. “We’ve got staffing challenges. We have safety concerns. We have health issues with the delivery of health care and there’s not much programming happening right now. We need to make sure that prison does what it’s supposed to do, which is rehabilitate.”

Geoff Klopp, who heads the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said DeMatteis “absolutely has the skill set necessary to do a great job as commissioner. The fact that she is the first woman, that’s great. That has nothing to do with the decision to put her where she is. I know Claire and I know she is going to leave a tremendous imprint on the Department of Correction as commissioner.”

DeMatteis would replace Perry Phelps, who is retiring in July 15 after two and a half years.

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