Building C vaughn prison

More than two years after a fatal riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) in Smyrna, trust and morale remain low in the organization, according to a survey of correctional officers.

WDEL exclusively obtained the results of the anonymous survey, which sought to gauge the climate in the state's prisons. The survey was administered online in March of 2019 as part of Wilmington University student Rick Brewer's doctoral program.

Just under 20 percent, or 329 of the Delaware Department of Correction's 2,200 officers, completed the survey, which Brewer determined was enough to make the study "credible" and "dependable."

The results signal many of the same issues identified by an independent review team after the riot--which killed Lt. Steven Floyd--still currently remain. Officers expressed they still feel there's a disconnect between leadership and front-line correctional officers that's led to "hostility and resentment."

An analysis of the findings concluded those feelings have resulted in "a lack of trust, high turnover, and numerous vacant positions that have been hard to fill--findings in line with the independent review team's public report.

Nearly 45 percent of respondents said they don't feel any emotional attachment to the organization and don't feel like they're "part of a family." However, the survey results contained some brighter, albeit contradictory, highlights. More than 42 percent of respondents said the organization means a "great deal" to them and they'd be happy to remain with the organization, despite a lack of emotional attachment.

Seventy percent of respondents called staying with the department a "necessity" over a "desire." Sixty-three percent expressed that leaving would be "very hard...even if they wanted to" due to the potential life disruption a departure might cause. About half of those surveyed fear they have "too few options" to consider leaving, while 61 percent attested that too much of "himself/herself" had already been placed in the organization to leave.

Brewer attributes the contradictory results to respondents' age. In a final report issued about the survey, he said a large number of respondents were age 50 or older and had spent two decades or more with the Department of Correction.

"Hearing feedback like this motivates me, and we will continue to do better," said Commissioner Claire DeMatteis. 

In an exclusive sit-down with WDEL, DeMatteis said, in spite of the results, she believes the department has come a long way and she's seen a "marked difference" in morale. DeMatteis, a former attorney for then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden, led the independent review team and was confirmed as the first female prison commissioner in June of 2019.

"The Department of Correction is not a troubled or beleaguered agency; it is a solid agency that's focused on public safety, [and] we're committed to our mission of re-entry," she said. "I believe the Department of Correction continues to have to work on building trust, sustaining trust, and enhancing trust. I will believe that every day that I'm commissioner."

She pointed to efforts made to highlight positive news both behind bars and on the part of its staffers, on and off the job.

"Officers off-duty who helped save a life in a car accident, I called the person; we promoted it on social media; we nominated them for an award that they received--you feel that they understand that leadership has their back, and we're determined to get the good news about this department out," she said. "We've gotten some great feedback from officers and their families [who said] thanks for shouting out the good work that we're doing."

DeMatteis pointed to the state employee charitable contribution campaign, which she said has seen contributions to United Way decline statewide. As the second largest department in the state, DeMatteis said its employees haven't raised more than $7,000 annually. This year, the department blew its goal out of the water, raising $20,000. During a breakfast with Santa, 200 officers and their families attended and raised more money than ever for Toys for Tots.

"People are excited to do good things and to help others," she said. "You just feel that people have gotten over a very dark period in the department's history."

President of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) Geoff Klopp, who took the survey, said employee recognition has made strides towards improving morale.

"It's a huge part in identifying when employees go above and beyond and do a great job--that's something that we haven't been quite as efficient at as we are right now...We are being more proactive in acknowledging the good things that our employees are doing, and hopefully, we'll start to see dividends as well," said Klopp.

DeMatteis cited almost entirely new leadership at Vaughn with helping improve what the independent review found was a "toxic culture" allowed to fester for years. Dana Metzger is now warden at JTVCC.  

"The [new] warden spent his career in the military; he ran military prisons, including in Iraq and Afghanistan; he was the military police commander at Dover Air Force Base immediately before coming to us," she said. "I joke that he's got that place running like the Dover Air Force Base now."

But despite those changes, Vaughn still needs improvement, according to Klopp.

"There's been changes in the upper administration of that facility, but the issues didn't come overnight, and we're not going to solve them overnight, but we're starting to move in the right direction, and there's still a lot of work that needs to be done in that facility when it comes to communication and management of employees there," said Klopp.

The prisons commissioner called the two-day riot at Vaughn, at its core, a failure of communication and a failure to share intelligence. While the survey showed communications remain a struggle, DeMatteis said they've been greatly enhanced by the recent implementation of a 'Daily Muster' during every shift change.

"When you change shifts, you need to get a formal communication handed down from the previous shift of incidents that had happened--concerns, good things, bad things, if there's maintenance issues--that exchange of information is so key," she said. "That has helped tremendously to improve the flow of communication from officer to officer [and] from supervisor to supervisor...during the shifts each facility now has what's called a huddle board, and it literally is a white board where you post...key metrics that every shift has to track about the facilities, about offenders, about programming."

She added the department has made significant investments, to the tune of $62 million, in training and improving the lines of communication up and down the chain of command.

"When you improve communication, you improve trust...when we demonstrate we can do that, we demonstrate to the officers that we have their back, that we trust them, and that they should trust leadership; they should trust their supervisors; they should go to them when there are issues," she said.

Klopp said he doesn't feel that warnings about suspicious inmate activity--like those that went ignored prior to the Vaughn riot--would fall on deaf ears again.

"I really don't feel that the communication lines are as broken as they were three years ago," said Klopp. "I don't think...those vital communications are slipping through cracks [anymore]."

But he noted while progress has been "acceptable" thus far, better communication is needed from middle management to line staff and from middle management to upper management.

"There's a long way to go," he told WDEL.

The survey revealed staffing challenges continue to plague correctional officers, contributing to stress and a high burnout rate.

"Being a correctional officer, I believe, is the hardest job in the state of Delaware...it is a tough job," DeMatteis said.

Despite a significant reduction in mandatory overtime, which she called "unsustainable," challenges remain.

"The best thing that we can do to relieve officer stress is get those vacancy rates down so that officers aren't having to work that unsustainable overtime because we have to run out facilities 24/7," she said.

The vacancy rate is down to 145 from 260, and DeMatteis said they aim to lower those remaining vacancies to 50 by the end of 2020.

But they've got to work twice as hard at retention.

"It doesn't make sense to invest and train an officer as hard as we do, and then lose them in three to five years, so we're trying to make it very attractive for them to stay that 20 to 25 years," said DeMatteis.

When asked about retention efforts, Klopp let out a large sigh.

"I'm not 100 percent sure, but we're just not hiring people at the rate that we need to be hiring correctional officers because the pension and salary structure are just still so far behind all the other law enforcement agencies in the state of Delaware," he said. "I feel like there's been some improvement in retention and we're making some small gains, but the staffing issue is still the glaring elephant in the room that has to be fixed.

In Fiscal Year 2019, the state raised starting salaries for correctional officers to $43,000. In past years, the starting salary for an incoming correctional officer was just $29,000; many had worked for the department for decades and still received an annual salary of less than $50,000.

Until the state makes changes to the pension and salary structure, Klopp said, the department will continue to struggle.

DeMatteis credited Klopp with creating a career ladder that shows officers' salaries all the way through 25 years of service as a great tool to promote growth and retention.

To further alleviate stress, DeMatteis said the department plans to roll-out an employee wellness program in conjunction with the University of Delaware and St. Francis Hospital in the New Year; they've also added classes like yoga.

"We thought, 'Yeah right, this is not going to go over well,' and, instead, the reports from the officers who went through was, 'This was the best program you've ever offered,' and it took trying something different to see that it really could be effective," she said.

Hefty overtime remains a huge stressor in officers' lives, Klopp said, and it's detrimental to their health.

"We need to put more emphasis on our employees' mental health, and we need to be giving them more resources...because correctional officers suffer from the highest rate of post-traumatic stress disorder, higher than the military or anybody else," he said. "There's still a tremendous amount of work to do to deal with burnout and stress.

"I'm grateful for the commissioner starting these initiatives, but It's probably something that should've started before she was here," said Klopp. "We're almost over [the riot]. I think there's just a little bit still tingeing around the edges. I think we'll be well past it in the next six months but yes, we are, fundamentally, over a very dark period in the Department of Correction, and we're really starting to pick up some momentum moving forward in the right direction, and it's refreshing."

To get a second glimpse into correctional officers' attitudes about their job, Klopp said he'll push for a follow-up survey, but he expressed disappointment that just 20 percent of officers engaged in the effort.

"That's a little frustrating. You have to be part of the solution, and you have to engage, and without any engagement, communication, nothing's really going to change. Hopefully, we can get some better participation," he said. "A lot of people still believe hey it's sent to my email address and there's a trail and there could be negative consequences for what I choose to say'; there's some of that...I do think that people still have some type of thought process that this could come back to bite me."

While she took issue with the phrasing of some of the questions in Brewer's survey, saying it was more geared towards corporations and not a paramilitary organization like the Department of Correction, DeMatteis said she'd be open to future surveys that gauge employees' commitment and trust. 

"It was an opportunity for some officers to give feedback, and people need that outlet, and we have to learn from that," she said.

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WDEL's DJ McAneny assisted with the data construction presented in this report.