Delaware prisons make strides, but staffing remains significant problem

Listen 5:41
Vaughn prison in Smyrna, Delaware was the scene of a deadly riot in February 2017.  (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Vaughn prison in Smyrna, Delaware was the scene of a deadly riot in February 2017. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Prison officials say they’ve made measureable progress implementing recommendations outlined in an independent review following a prison riot in 2017.

The incident at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna led to the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.

However, understaffing at the Department of Correction — which the report states contributed to the uprising — still remains a significant problem.

During a press conference Tuesday, Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, and DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said the state is committed to improving prison conditions and remaining transparent.

“Officers and their families, inmates and their families, and the public should hold us accountable to address recommendations identified to correct bad practices and lack of communication and start the multiyear effort to change the culture here at the state’s largest maximum security prison,” Carney said.

The independent review of the prison found a dysfunctional, adversarial culture between prison leaders and rank-and-file, and correctional officers and inmates, both of which, the report states, contributed to the deadly siege.

DOC officials say the department has implemented 40 of the 41 recommendations from the report to improve safety, morale and the prison environment. Those improvements include installing additional security cameras, training for correctional officers and new programs and services for inmates.

DOC is conducting performance reviews of officers, and offering mentorship programs. DOC is hosting monthly meetings between staff and among inmates to foster discussion and problem solving.

“It’s the job of all of us to make sure they’re better prepared to return to society than when they came here, in addition to protecting the safety of our correctional officers and the public while they’re here,” Carney said.

However, DOC still suffers from a 16 percent job vacancy rate, which contributes to mandatory overtime for the officers. The report stated the overtime leads to tiredness and resentment among officers, and played a role in the lack of safety at the prison, and poor relationships between officers and inmates.

The department reports it has hired 183 new officers over the past year. However, with about 232 officers retiring or resigning over the past two years, there still are 227 vacant positions—including 98 at the Smyrna prison.

DOC hopes to reduce overtime by considering alternatives to manage populations.

“I started out as a correctional officer myself, and I personally know the toll it takes on these officers and their families when they’re forced to work overtime, and we’re going to do everything in our power to relieve that stress on these officers,” Phelps said.

Carney and the General Assembly approved a wage increase to $40,000 in fiscal year 2018 and $43,000 in the current fiscal year which started July 1. Corrections officials say they hope the salary, as well as new bonuses, will incentivize recruitment and retainment.

DOC recently hired two new recruiters, who have hired 62 additional staff.

In addition to recruiting from job fairs, the department also hopes to attract potential hires by creating a youth cadet academy for high school students.

“We have to offer them something that makes them want to be here — and that something is the family environment we have, the public service, the service to the people of the state of Delaware,” Phelps said.

“This is not a job everyone wants to do, and it takes a lot of different skills to do this job — interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, empathy. It’s not just a matter of walking in the door, doing some pushups and putting on a badge. This is more of a career, this is more of a passion — it has to be a passion to do it for 30 years.”

You can read the final report in its entirety below:

Delaware Dept. of Correction Final Report by Anonymous OOxUNID8 on Scribd

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.