- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2017

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Current and former workers for the Delaware Department of Correction painted a disturbing portrait Thursday of a dysfunctional agency where understaffing and lack of training have put correctional officers at risk and security has taken a back seat to treatment programs for inmates.

“Right now, what we have is not a prison, it’s a three-ring circus,” said Sgt. Aaron Forkum, a correctional officer at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Forkum was among several people who testified at a Senate Labor Committee hearing to discuss working conditions inside Delaware prisons. The hearing was called in the aftermath of an inmate uprising and hostage taking at Vaughn Correctional Center earlier this month that resulted in the death of correctional officer Steven Floyd.

The uprising drew renewed attention to chronic complaints from correctional officers about understaffing and low pay that have resulted in high turnover, low morale and frequent use of mandatory overtime, putting fatigued and badly outnumbered correctional officers at risk.

“We’ve been screaming for help for a long time. Nobody’s listening,” Forkum said.

Other speakers suggested that a lack of training and supervision have led to correctional officers cutting corners and becoming too complacent, increasing security risks. Some said those who complain about institutional lapses or security concerns face retaliation.

Many witnesses also criticized a recent settlement of a federal lawsuit alleging that mentally ill inmates have been subjected to solitary confinement without proper evaluation, monitoring and treatment.

Under the settlement agreement with the Community Legal Aid Society approved last year, the DOC agreed to limit how long inmates spend in disciplinary housing and to increase the amount of unstructured recreation time available to inmates in certain maximum security settings. Officials also agreed to take steps to better classify, track and care for prisoners with mental health issues and in restrictive housing.

But prison workers say concerns about inmate treatment have trumped security needs, resulting in dangerous inmates being moved from maximum security to free up bed space for inmates with mental health needs, and allowing inmates to commit infractions without fear of punishment.

“They really kind of run the show now, along with mental health,” said DOC worker Charity Roop. “… I don’t see where it’s an actual prison setting any longer.”

The Delaware Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which participated in the lawsuit, rejects such notions.

Statements by the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware and individual prison employees that the settlement agreement had turned control of prisons over to inmates or resulted in inmates being able to ignore correctional officers are “unequivocally false,” ACLU executive director Kathleen MacRae said in an email Thursday.

Meanwhile, Lt. Garland Williams, an institutional administrator at Howard R. Young prison in Wilmington, told lawmakers Thursday that DOC needs to beef up its training, particularly for correctional officers moving into supervisory levels, and make sure it’s done on a departmental, not institutional level. Williams also said the DOC must upgrade its technology systems and equipment to ensure safe working conditions.

“We’re running on luck,” he said.

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