DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware's Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to confirm Democratic Gov. John Carney's nominee to lead the state's corrections system, which in recent years has faced a fatal prison riot, lawsuits alleging mistreatment of inmates and chronic staffing and morale problems.
Claire DeMatteis will replace Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, who plans to retire July 15 after 2½ years leading the department.
DeMatteis reiterated Wednesday that safety and security in DOC facilities for staff, inmates and members of the public is her top priority.
"Beyond safety and security, the next biggest challenge is recruitment," she said.
The department has struggled for years to maintain adequate staffing within the ranks of prison guards, who have routinely been forced to work overtime shifts to ensure minimum staffing levels. To ease the overtime burden, officials last year announced that they had entered into a two-year agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to accept up to 330 inmates from the maximum-security James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.
The Vaughn prison was the site of an inmate uprising in February 2017 during which prison guard Steven Floyd was killed and three other staffers taken hostage. Two other guards were released by inmates after being beaten and tormented. A female counselor was held hostage for nearly 20 hours before tactical teams burst in and rescued her.
"It was a wake-up call in a lot of ways," Carney said Tuesday before signing a budget that boosts spending for the DOC by $15 million. The bulk of the increase, more than $10.5 million, is for prison personnel costs.
An independent review ordered by Carney after the riot found that the dismissal by DOC officials of warnings about trouble brewing was indicative of an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity, and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.
"We've been making improvements over the last two years so that never happens again. ... This budget continues those investments," Carney said.
DeMatteis said salary increases and signing bonuses have helped recruitment efforts, noting that there are currently 164 vacancies within the ranks of correctional officers, compared to about 230 at this time last year.
"We're on the right track, but keeping the recruitment up for correctional officers and probation and parole officers is going to be a big challenge," she said.
Carney first turned to DeMatteis in 2017, hiring her as a special assistant to help implement recommendations contained in an independent review of the riot.
"I am confident that Claire is the right person to lead the Department of Correction and to continue that work," he said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
Despite the increase in spending for DOC, the budget for the fiscal year starting Monday includes 16 fewer correctional officer positions at Vaughn and 15 fewer positions at the state prison for women. In the aftermath of the riot, lawmakers in 2017 approved funding for 50 new guards at Vaughn and 25 new guard positions at Baylor Women's Correctional Institution.
"The issue wasn't the authorized number of correctional officers, it was the actual number that were in those slots," Carney explained this week. "We have been gradually decreasing the number of vacancies. ... We are increasing the number of live bodies that show up."