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Delaware Dept. of Correction increases hiring bonuses for corrections officers to $10,000

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media

New corrections officer recruits will receive a $10,000 sign-on bonus starting this month – the latest effort by Delaware’s Department of Correction to stem escalating staffing shortages.

Roughly 15 percent of corrections officers positions are vacant, with similarly high vacancy rates within the department's administrative and probation divisions. The DOC has lost an average of 19 officers each month over the past year to retirements and resignations, with some officers opting to take higher-paying jobs with local and state police agencies.

"The starting salary for corrections officers is around $45,000 a year," says Corrections Officers' Association of Delaware President Brian Clarke. "You could get paid more if you worked at a local police department, but you could also make a higher starting wage with Perdue or Mountaire."

Despite the current offering of a $5,000 sign-on bonus, the department’s academy classes are averaging fewer than 20 recruits. Not all of those recruits complete the academy, leaving the DOC even further from its hiring goals.

"To break even, we need to get our academy classes up closer to 50 to account for officers who are retiring or leaving for other reasons," says Bureau of Administrative Services Chief John Sebastian.

The DOC runs six academy classes a year; it would need 38 recruits per class to maintain current staffing levels and more to fill empty positions.

While the Corrections Officers Association of Delaware says a larger bonus might help draw additional interest, Clarke adds that the DOC should make more efforts to retain experienced officers like himself. "We're seeing people with 15 or more years of experience leaving and retiring early," he says.

The DOC points to multiple ongoing retention efforts — including a retention bonus for current department to be issued later this fall, as well as increased pension payouts for officers with 20 or more years of experience approved by the General Assembly last year — as part of their plans to slow the pace of attrition, but they add that other retention strategies are in the works.

Clark also underscores that the DOC's recruitment challenges go beyond pay alone.

"Money is the key to the door, but there are layers to this problem," says Clarke.

He points out that officers from Georgetown or New Jersey will often be assigned to James T. Vaughn Correctional Institution in Smyrna — the largest prison in the state — adding a long commute to workdays that increasingly include mandatory overtime – also known as being “frozen.”

“[The officer] has to drive an hour or hour and fifteen minutes every day, and then get frozen, and then drive back," he said. "You’re looking at an 18-to-20-hour day. It burns them out. A person from Delmar, Delaware isn't going to apply for a job if they know they're going to have to drive to and from Smyrna after a long and stressful shift."

But Bureau of Prisons Chief Shane Troxler says staffing shortages make it difficult to give officers greater choice in where they work.

“If we had a larger class, that would give us more flexibility to assign officers to a facility they live close to," he said. "That’s another reason why this signing bonus is so important.”

Troxler adds that while staffing shortages aren't new to the DOC, the scale of the current crisis is unusual. After a riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Institution and the consequent killing of Lt. Steven Floyd, the department closed part of the prison and transferred 200 incarcerated people to custody in Pennsylvania — a chance, Troxler said, to address the staffing problems that led up to the riot.

Between 2018 and the end of 2019, the number of overtime shifts worked by officers at Vaughn fell from 950 in a week to 450 in a week.

"We were making genuine headway on our overtime challenges," says Troxler.

But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly ended the department's progress. In January 2020, the department assigned mandatory overtime to officers at Vaughn between zero and ten times a week. Last week, Troxler says he assigned mandatory overtime shifts to 40 officers at Vaughn.

The DOC assigns mandatory overtime when no officers volunteer to fill unstaffed shifts. Officers work mandatory overtime shifts in order of seniority, meaning that an officer at a facility like Baylor Women's Correctional Institution in New Castle — which currently has 118 officers on staff — will work mandatory overtime shifts more often than an officer at Vaughn, which has more than 700 officers to cycle through.

Clarke says that aside from burnout, the shortage of officers forces the DOC to scale back some services for incarcerated people, including in-person educational programs. “It affects not just the staff, but the inmates as well,” he said.

Troxler clarified that while the DOC has canceled some in-person programs for lack of staff, the agency makes an effort to avoid cancelling any given program for extended periods of time. "“If one service is shut down today, we try to shut down a different service the next day," he said. "If a GED program gets shut down today, we may shut down a substance abuse course tomorrow. We don’t want to shut down an education course for an extended period of time.”

Delaware Public Media has reached out to people currently and recently incarcerated in Delaware for comment on the impacts of staffing shortages.

Meanwhile, the DOC is currently negotiating its next collective bargaining agreement with the Correctional Officers Association, which provides an opportunity to increase salaries to keep up with other law enforcement agencies.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.