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Department of Correction unveils expanded educational facilities for maximum-security prisoners

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
A view of a new classroom through a door at the Security Housing Unit at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smryna

Delaware’s Department of Correction unveiled several new classrooms at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna Wednesday, bringing maximum-security prisoners there expanded access to educational and behavioral programming. 

Prioritizing and expanding educational and cognitive behavior interventions at Vaughn was a recommendation of an independent reviewof issues there following a deadly riot at the prison in 2017. 

That review found that “the lack of programming [was] a result of the philosophy, not budgets” at the prison, and that “the lack of rehabilitative programs and job opportunities negatively impact[ed] inmates.”

DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said at Wednesday’s press event that the new maximum security educational facility is just one of several ways the Department is working to implement the review’s recommendations. She mentions increasing recruitment and retention of officers, training officers in de-escalation and conflict resolution, as well as efforts to build a more comprehensive re-entry system involving several state agencies.

“Step by step, day by day, as we implement these improvements, we are gradually and steadily changing the culture that led to the darkest days in DOC’s history on Feb. 1 and 2 in 2017,” said DeMatteis, referring to the prison uprising that resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd at the hands of prisoners. 

Marc Dickerson with the state Department of Education is a teacher in the new facility, which began classes Monday.

“If you’re housed back here in SHU [Security Housing Unit], they didn’t have any opportunity to attend any education classes,” he said. “Most education classes were on the compound side, which is minimum and medium security. So up until Monday, they didn’t have access to any education. Now we're able to serve 40 students a day.”

He says his students are positive about the program. 

“They realize they should have done a bit better their first time, I think. And they’re glad for this chance to get an opportunity to get an education, hopefully walk out of here with their GED,” he said.

The $3.5 million facility houses basic adult education classes to start. DOC officials say behavioral treatment programs will be rolled out there in the future. 

DeMatteis says a 6-month evidence-based course called “thinking things through” will help inmates “work through their criminal behavior.” Prison officials call the expanded programming a strategy for longterm public safety.  

“Let’s face it,” said DeMatteis. “A majority of the offenders in this building are going to be released. As they walk out those doors it behooves us to get them better educational skills and better life skills so that they can be more productive on the outside.”


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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