State lawmakers convened a special joint hearing March 23 to discuss possible reforms within the Department of Correction after an inmate attacked two correctional officers at the state prison near Smyrna March 16.
State lawmakers convened a special joint hearing March 23 to discuss possible reforms within the Department of Correction after an inmate attacked two correctional officers at a state prison March 16.
Members of the Senate and House corrections committees heard from several rank-and-file correctional officers as well as union officials from Delaware and elsewhere who suggested, among other things, that the department conduct more frequent and thorough searches of prison facilities and organize an emergency response squad that can act more quickly when an incident occurs.
Sen. Bruce C. Ennis, D-Smyrna, chairman of the Senate Adult and Juvenile Corrections Committee, said the meeting was not meant to be an indictment of the department’s handling of the March 16 incident, where a 25-year-old inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna stabbed a guard with a homemade knife and seriously injured another officer who tried to subdue him.
“Since that incident occurred there have been questions raised, particularly over safety and equipment,” Ennis said. “We’re not going to debate the issue; this is purely for fact finding.”
Those who testified before the committees offered a host of suggestions.
Tom Ridgely, a union advocate with the Delaware Correctional Officers Association, said the department should seriously consider forming teams dedicated to performing random searches of inmate cells and common areas.
Other jurisdictions, he said, employee teams of officers who show up at facilities unannounced and at random intervals to “shake down” whole cell blocks at once and search for contraband, including cigarettes, cell phones and homemade weapons, commonly known as shanks.
“When we don’t shake down, we’re warehousing weapons,” Ridgely said. “The commissioner needs the resources for those teams.”
Correctional officers testified that currently they only have the manpower to shake down, at most, three cells per shift. This means a cell can go as long as a month without being searched — plenty of time for an inmate to acquire or fabricate a shank.
“The one thing you don’t want to establish with a shake down is a pattern. You want to be spontaneous, you want to be random,” said John Rosser, a correctional officer in Washington, D.C., and vice chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police corrections division.
The union representatives also advocated for the creation of a dedicated Correctional Emergency Response Team, which would be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to a prison riot or other serious incident.
Carl Danberg, DOC commissioner, said the department has a squad like this, but it’s made up of off-duty correctional officers who, although they are on call, cannot keep their weapons or gear at home and must report to a central location to suit up before heading to an incident.
The team can take up to an hour and a half to respond, he said.
Rep. Dennis P. Williams, D-Wilmington, said that’s the wrong way to organize such a team.
“You mean you’ve got to round everyone up like a volunteer fire company?” he asked Danberg.
The commissioner said it would be extremely difficult to form any kind of dedicated emergency response team or shake down posse because of the tight staffing constraints the department is facing.
Budget cuts already have the DOC operating at minimum staff levels, Danberg said, and a team of 10 officers likely would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000.
Williams, who is vice chairman of the budget-drafting Joint Finance Committee, said he would support Danberg if he asked for additional funds.
“The numbers don’t frighten me. If you put that in a budget, we would look at it,” he said.