A report from the special assistant tasked with overseeing reforms at the Delaware Department of Correction on Thursday revealed that new security cameras and the creation of an inmate advisory council were among the steps being taken to improve security at state prisons in the wake of last year’s deadly takeover of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
The 65-page document, compiled by Claire DeMatteis, a former top attorney for former Vice President Joe Biden, followed an independent review in September that blamed chronic understaffing, a lack of communication and inadequate technology for contributing to the Feb. 1, 2017, siege, which left veteran correction officer Lt. Steven Floyd Sr. dead.
In the first of two reports, DeMatteis said the DOC was making progress toward meeting the 41 recommendations put forward by the independent review team, spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III of the District of Delaware and former Family Court Judge William L. Chapman Jr.
Specifically, the report said, prison officials are focusing on improving training for correction officers, boosting staff retention, improving communication and bolstering the services provided to inmates.
While some of the reforms were already in place, DeMatteis said others could take up to a year to implement, and she cautioned much work remained to fix institutional flaws that have been years in the making.
“Like any incremental progress, positive change is never linear and often is characterized by one step forward, two steps back, then another step forward,” she wrote in the report. “Culture change is a complex process and not a one-time event.”
According to the document, prison officials began installing security cameras in November and “will continue at on an accelerated schedule.” By July, nine JTVCC buildings are expected to be outfitted with the cameras and the entire installation is expected to be completed by March 2019.
Officials have said that there were no cameras in the prison at the time of the uprising, causing delays in determining exactly what happened there last February.
The General Assembly last year allocated $2 million in the fiscal year 2018 bond bill to purchase cameras for JTVCC, and the DOC has allocated an additional $150,000 to install cameras to better secure parts of Sussex Correctional Institution and Howard R. Young Correctional Institution. Installations of those cameras began this month and are slated to be finished by April, the report said.
The report also cited the creation of a new inmate advisory council to help ease tensions between prison staff and inmates. According to an Oct. 1, 2017, memorandum included in the report, the group will meet monthly with JTVCC’s senior administration to “discuss areas of mutual interest” and to determine areas of general inmate concern.
The program is not open to inmates who have been released from restricted housing within a 12-month period or who are known members of gangs.
“The goal is to foster discussion and problem-solving between inmates and officers,” the report said.
The DOC, which has been plagued by staffing shortages, has been reviewing its standards for promoting employees and is examining the possibility of 12-hour shifts, as opposed to current eight-hour work intervals, the report said.
Last year, the lawmakers—working with Gov. John Carney and members of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware—approved a 22 percent increase in correction officer starting salary to $40,000, a figure which is slated to rise to $43,000 in July.
Meanwhile, the DOC has hired an experienced recruiter to fill more than 250 staff vacancies and plans to bring on another early this year, the report said.
The department has also partnered with Wilmington University to conduct mandatory six-hour training courses in risk management, de-escalation and communication skills for 1,200 correction officers during the first sixth months of the year. About 400 correctional leaders are also required to participate in an eight-hour training course at the university focusing on supervisory management and leadership skills, according to the report.
For prisoners, who have complained of onerous restrictions put in place following the attack, access to the commissary, recreation and library privileges have been reinstated, DeMatteis said.
In a statement, DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said the department has “moved quickly” to put the recommendations into action.
“Addressing the challenges we face will require our focus and attention over the long-term. But all the people of the Department of Correction are committed to this work,” he said.
While the independent review’s recommendations were generally focused at JTVCC, DeMatteis said that DOC leadership was implementing reforms across its other level 5 facilities at Sussex Correctional Institution, Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.
A follow-up report from DeMatteis is due in July, at the end of her one-year appointment as special assistant.