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Correctional officers have a right to workplace safety

If safety issues had been addressed at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, perhaps the murder of Sgt. Steven Floyd could have been prevented


Correctional personnel across the nation sit in shock. In an attempt to dismiss a lawsuit by the family of a correctional officer who was killed during a riot, attorneys for the state of Delaware argued that there's no constitutional right to workplace safety and that the defendants are immune from liability because they didn't violate a clearly established right.

In the state's effort to defend its position of ignorance to the problems that plagued James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the truth was inadvertently spoken. With evidence at hand and with no other way to argue they didn't know, leaders now look to push away personal responsibility for issues they knew existed. 

Retired prison inspector and CorrectionsOne contributor Gary York argues that management has the responsibility to maintain a safe working environment for correctional staff.

"Management must uphold the responsibility to protect correctional staff at all times. Lives are at stake and the safety of those lives rest upon the shoulders of management," said York.

Geoff Klopp, President of the Correctional Officer Association of Delaware and a 29-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Corrections, believed the riot and subsequent murder of Sgt. Steven Floyd could have been prevented.

This undated photo provided by the Delaware Department of Correction shows Sgt. Steven Floyd. (Delaware Department of Correction via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Delaware Department of Correction shows Sgt. Steven Floyd. (Delaware Department of Correction via AP)

"Officers at JTVCC relayed prior to February 1 that as a result of the ACLU agreement, inmates were being ‘flowed down’ to lesser secure buildings in order to make room for ‘mental health’ inmates,” said Klopp. “This practice bypassed the classifications process. The inmates who were ‘flowed down’ were known to have violent histories. Officers, including Sgt. Floyd, notified their superiors that certain inmates needed to be removed from C building because of the belief that the inmates were making plans for some kind of uprising. In fact, the inmates had made ‘dry runs’ multiple times before the February incident. Even after the codes were called, the inmates were not moved or disciplined."

Klopp added that staffing has always been tied into the frontline concerns. "Officers are burned out from working all of the overtime to staff the facilities. There are not enough officers to man all of the posts on many days so the solution is to occasionally shut down visits, education or other activities. This practice makes the inmates very upset and, again, causes issues with staffing."

A Governor’s task force report in 2004 and 2005 relayed these issues, but nothing was ever done.

"Communication between management and frontline was non-existent and their attempt to voice their concerns was just outright ignored," said Klopp.

Communication between management and frontline is essential

In order for any facility to survive, communication between management and frontline personnel is a necessity. Frontline concerns should be heard and, if needed, addressed. If management continues to ignore communications from the frontline, safety and security will be jeopardized. Remember, the frontline is the key point of intel from the ground floor.

For years, the Correctional Officer Association of Delaware had complained staffing was too low. Officers were burned out. With a work force of approximately 2,500 staff members (this includes management), the Delaware Department of Corrections is spending approximately $23 million a year on overtime to staff facilities.

Not only does overtime compensation strain budgets, but staffing shortages impact the ability of officers to attend courses, such as defensive tactics training, because there is no one available to cover staff absence. According to Klopp, "This course is given in the basic corrections academy. From that point on there are no refresher courses. So obviously we have people that have not had a defensive tactics course for decades!

"To prevent what took place, there are many things that have to be fixed,” said Klopp. “We need staff, we need training, we need a review of the classification system, we need our facilities that were built in the 1970s to be updated to our current operations style in corrections, and we need the DOC to bring security back to the forefront"

Since the riot, there have been positive changes made to the Delaware Department of Corrections. Since February, the Delaware legislature helped raise salaries to attempt to attract more officers and commitments have been made to address retention. The state has also reached outside the ranks of DOC to bring in a new warden.

Currently, the field of corrections is suffering from a divide between management and frontline. This divide originates from the frontline believing their needs are not being accommodated. Management needs to care for the well-being of all those in facilities. Frontline puts their trust in management to make the right decisions. In corrections, these are decisions that can save lives. If management chooses not to care over the well-being of those who work or reside in their facility, they have no right being in that position of authority. 

 A hero was taken from us on February 1, 2017. The murder of Sgt. Steven Floyd could have been prevented if management had listened to the concerns of the frontline and committed to changes that would ensure safety and security. Instead, five months later, the family of Sgt. Steven Floyd is still fighting for closure. They're fighting for answers and not excuses.

For those who still work at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, I hope things continue to change in a positive way. I hope the new management sees the errors of prior management and listens to the concerns of the frontline. I hope they see the importance of teamwork and responsibility.

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