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DOC Commissioner paints COVID-19 outbreak in Delaware's prisons as 'contained,' advocate disagrees

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media

Elected officials have joined advocates in publicly questioning the Department of Correction response to COVID-19. 

State Sen. Darius Brown hosted a live-streamed interview with Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Claire DeMatteis Monday evening about the state of the outbreak in DOC facilities and how her department is responding.

At that time DOC had identified cases among 21 inmates and 20 officers— plus several contractors. DeMatteis said DOC has “proactively” tested 136 inmates, and noted several inmates who tested positive are asymptomatic.

“We have [the virus] contained to one minimum housing unit at James T. Vaughn and one housing pod at Sussex Community Corrections,” she said. 

Haneef Salaam, in-reach coordinator at the Wilmington HOPE Commission, objected to DeMatteis painting the outbreak as contained. 

“If you look at the numbers, it’s steadily increased for the past three weeks,” he said during a Campaign for Smart Justice Facebook live broadcast Monday night. “We’ve seen early on within this epidemic how one, two cases can easily turn into a widespread outbreak.”

Salaam noted with prison staff going in and out, an outbreak in Delaware’s prisons could lead to an outbreak in the community. He called for testing of every inmate in DOC custody and the release of certain inmates who wouldn’t pose a danger. 

Sen. Brown also raised the idea of releasing inmates who fit certain criteria.

DeMatteis has argued DOC does not have the unilateral authority to release inmates, and that freeing them from DOC facilities may put them at greater risk if they cannot find housing, employment or healthcare. 

“That’s a myth,” said Salaam. “I know for a fact that many people living in prison have family members who will provide a safe, rehabilitative space for them to go.”

“How many people got [family] who are locked up right now,” he added, “and if they got out today, they could come home today, be safe, be COVID-free, social distance and have their basic needs taken care of?”

DeMatteis said Monday that the process of petitioning the Board of Parole for sentencing modifications could take months, by which time the outbreak could be over. 

Sen. Brown asked DeMatteis about DOC’s policy on face masks, which inmates are sewing, but not universally allowed to wear. 

DeMatteis says roughly 500 inmates are wearing masks, including those working in the kitchens or garment shop, those in an infirmary, and a group of elderly inmates at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, where the most cases have been identified.

But beyond these groups of inmates, only officers are wearing masks. 

“It’s a security risk for officers not to be able to see an offender’s face, let alone the contraband that they could hide in a mask,” said DeMatteis. “Inmates find ways to hide contraband in things you wouldn’t believe.” 

Salaam said inmates should have the choice. 

“[DOC says] masks are not necessary for inmates because the threat is from officers coming in from the outside. Ain’t [the virus] airborne still?” he said. “Come on, man, if I don’t want to breathe that in, I shouldn't have to breathe that in ... In the community, we all have the right to wear a mask or not. These are people, even though they’re locked up. Just give them the opportunity to wear a mask or not.”

DOC officials announced Monday another inmate in the Sussex County Community Corrections center tested positive for COVID-19, bringing that facility’s total number of cases to six offenders and three officers. 

The only Department of Correction facility with more cases is Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, which has 15 lab-confirmed cases among inmates and 12 among staff. 

Late last month, DOC restricted its work release program to essential employers that mirror its screening and cleaning policies. But the department suspended work release altogether throughout Sussex County Monday. 

DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis says the change was a response to the rapid increase in cases in Sussex County, which Gov. John Carney and a top public health official expressed concern over Friday.  

The number of cases in that county has passed 1,000. 

“We’d made sure [offenders] were at employers that had as strict screenings as we did, but still, the growth of cases in Sussex is getting too concerning,” said DeMatteis. “So, we pulled work release as well.”

DOC officials say under the new restrictions, just 14 inmates are currently reporting to work release employers in New Castle County, and none are doing so in Kent. 


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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