- Associated Press - Saturday, September 30, 2017

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Ashley Wattley-Cross knows a little bit about being a corrections officer.

Back in New York, her mother retired from a corrections job and a number of her family members still work for the New York State Department of Corrections.

She said it stood to reason she should follow in her family’s footsteps. So, in 2015 she enrolled in the Delaware Technical Community College Criminal Justice program with hopes of landing a job in corrections or law enforcement after graduation.

Wattley-Cross was nearly done with her degree when the Correctional Officer Certificate program - a partnership between the college and the Delaware Department of Correction - was launched this semester. The program, once completed, will give students preferential hiring by the DOC.

For the 26-year-old, that was a reason to stick around a little longer to take the required courses.

“I knew this was perfect for me,” she said. “It’s on-the-job training in school and will help me compete for a job because I would have the certificate backing me. It will help me start my career.”

The concept is simple, said Nicole Shuler-Geer, Department Chair of Criminal Justice/Homeland Security at Delaware Tech. Students take the five courses and any prerequisite courses, and after completion, they are awarded a correctional officer certificate, good for 16 credits.

They then take that to the Delaware Department of Correction upon filling out an application or applying for employment and they are given preferential treatment in the hiring process and given 10 points toward their testing, Shuler-Geer said.

Once they are hired and complete the academy, students bring their training certificate back to Delaware Tech and they are given additional credits (13) toward their degree in criminal justice.

“So now they are more than halfway there in completing their criminal justice degree,” she said. “The program not only helps bolster the correctional officer applicant pool but also significantly jump starts individuals toward obtaining a college degree.”

Shuler-Geer said Delaware Tech has been looking to start the certificate program for a while now. As a former employee of the Department of Correction and also a trainer at the Correctional Employee Initial Training (CEIT) academy, she knew what DOC was in need of as far as training and some of the things that could benefit new hires.

She worked with DOC commissioner Perry Phelps and others from the Department of Correction to prepare the certificate program, and it was offered for the first time at the beginning of the current semester.

The classes chosen for the certificate program are Intro to Criminal Justice, which gives students a basic understanding of police, courts and corrections and how they work together, Shuler-Geer said.

Essentials of interviewing and counseling is another course, which she said will help students learn how to talk to people and how to listen and understand what their needs and wants are.

“You have to know that working in the institutions,” she said.

Ethics, professionalism, and communication is another course, as is crisis intervention and prevention, which Shuler-Geer said is techniques and modes of assessment and how to respond to particular situations.

“We’re not the practical application piece,” she said. “We’re the knowledge piece.”

Shuler-Geer believes the program will help DOC obtain a more qualified workforce coming in the door and also will show who is serious about becoming a correction officer.

“When they come with our certificate and they apply for the job, the Department of Correction knows when they walk in the door that they are a more qualified workforce and they have more of an idea what the job entails,” Shuler-Geer said.

Phelps agrees, calling the certificate program groundwork for someone with an interest in becoming a correction officer. He said the program will enable DOC to recruit the best candidates in the region and strengthen the incoming workforce.

“We would know if a person took and passed the classes in the program that they are prepared,” he said. “It gives them a good footprint to start a career and they will have a better understanding of how they fit as a correction officer.”

Christine Gillan, director of strategic communication at Delaware Tech, believes the Correctional Officer Certificate is another great example of working with a partner and developing exactly what they need.

Phelps also lauded the partnership.

“We value our academic partners,” he said. “We communicated the idea and they helped us shape that into the certificate program. We want to continue working with them on future collaborations.”

Mary Haro-Gestole, 21, is in her first semester in the criminal justice program at Delaware Tech. The Maryland student hopes to take advantage of the DTTC/DOC collaboration and turn it into a career in law enforcement.

She said her uncle is a police officer and she has thought about becoming one, too. While she is undecided on what she wants to do, she knows working in the criminal justice field is for her.

So is the Correctional Officer Certificate program.

“I remember Ms. Shuler basically saying that if she got two applications, and they both had a criminal justice degree, she would next look at who had experience in the field and she said this is the best way to get that experience,” Haro-Gestole said. “That’s a very big draw, especially because I don’t have anything in my background close to being a corrections officer. Anything that can make it easier is a plus.”

Shuler-Geer said that starting out as a correctional officer to get into the law enforcement field or to move over to probation and parole after receiving a bachelor’s degree is a path many students take.

“DOC can be a career or it can be the first step into other areas of law enforcement,” she said.

Life after Vaughn

Demetrius Reid has known since he was in high school that he wanted to be a police officer. He also knows that achieving that goal would probably first require him to work as a correction officer.

When the 19-year-old Dover student first heard about the prison uprising that occurred in February at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, he had second thoughts about his career choice.

“But in the end, I felt like I couldn’t let that stop me from achieving my goal,” said Reid, who is enrolled in the certificate program as he works toward a criminal justice degree at Delaware Tech.

The prison siege began on the morning of Feb. 1 as inmates were coming in from the recreation yard. They overpowered correctional officers and took control of the building.

Just after 5 a.m., after more than 18 hours of tense negotiations, a prison Response Team broke down the doors to Vaughn Correctional Center’s C Building, where prisoners still held two staffers and other inmates hostage.

They found a female counselor shielded by inmates, uninjured and protected throughout the hostage situation. Moments later, they found 47-year-old Sgt. Steven Floyd unresponsive; he was later pronounced dead.

Since the uprising that left Floyd - who was posthumously promoted to lieutenant - dead during the 18-hour prison siege, more than 25 corrections officers have resigned.

Many say having too few correction officers, who in turn were forced to work longer hours, was a key reason the incident happened.

Commissioned by Gov. John Carney shortly after the 18-hour siege, a 54-page report focused on issues within the Department of Correction that may have contributed to the uprising.

One part of the report focused on DOC leadership looking into the understaffing issue at all state prisons and a call for more correction officers in the state.

The report said that the prisons sometimes hold over officers to work double shifts up to five times per week. Though these extra hours can result in high amounts of overtime pay, they leave correctional officers burned out, with many saying they routinely miss important family events, according to the report.

In June, Gov. Carney and the unions that represent prison correctional officers reached an agreement that would increase starting pay and lead to safer conditions inside prison walls.

New Delaware correctional officers will now earn $40,000, up from $35,179, in the next budget year and $43,000 the following year. The agreed-upon increase is more than the $37,120 Carney offered in his budget proposal earlier this year following the Feb. 1 siege at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that ended with the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.

Phelps said that the new certificate program isn’t a direct result of the prison siege and that talks about the program were happening before the Feb. 1 siege. He believes anything that can help recruit new correction officers is a plus.

“We want to use this to entice people who are not thinking about being a correction officer,” Phelps said. “People just don’t know about this career and hopefully this (program) will help some people make a decision to pursue it. We’re hoping to drive interest.”

The Vaughn incident didn’t deter Watley-Cross. She said her family came down to pay their respects to Lt. Floyd and the other correction officers who suffered in the ordeal.

“I can see how close-knit the corrections family is, regardless of where you are from,” she said. “The fact that people from all over the state came out to show respect for what corrections officers do was very honorable to me. It made me want to do it even more because I want to be a part of a career that means something.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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