Cape Gazette

State considers Sussex County prison job cuts

By Kevin Spence | Nov 15, 2009
Department of Correction Commissioner Carl Danberg is proposing to cut 40 jobs at a Georgetown prison, a move that is estimated to save the state $1 million.

State prison numbers
James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, a level-five prison near Smyrna, has about 2,500 inmates.

Howard T. Young Correctional Institution, a level-five prison in Wilmington, is also called Gander Hill, named for the neighborhood in which it’s located. It has about 1,800 inmates.

Delores J. Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution is located in New Castle and has about 500 inmates.

Sussex Correctional Institution is a multi-level prison near Georgetown that has about 1,200 inmates.

Danberg, on Oct. 29, met with members of the General Assembly’s Sussex County delegation.

“The ones feeling the brunt are the correctional officers on the front lines at Sussex Correctional Institution,” said Sen. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, who attended the meeting.

Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, said after workers at Sussex Correctional Institution (SCI) heard of the proposed cuts, local legislators were contacted. Then, members of the Sussex delegation requested a meeting with Danberg.

“Nothing is concrete, but they are floating the idea around,” said Atkins.

But some Sussex lawmakers say they’ve been left out of the loop when it comes to Danberg’s plan. They also say it might jeopardize the safety of inmates and prison workers.

Booth said Danberg proposed closing SCI’s multi-security building that employs 40 workers. He said Danberg said 30 prison workers could be moved to other state prisons, but the proposal would also permanently remove 10 positions.

The building used to house maximum-security prisoners; however, today, it has a range of offenders. Maximum-security inmates are temporarily housed in the building and later sent to the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, a level-five prison near Smyrna.

The plan also calls for re-classifying prisoners’ offense status and moving some prisoners to other state facilities.

Booth said Danberg was presented with a list of questions prior to the October meeting. Questions included the safety of prisoners and prison workers. “Our prisons are overcrowded. One would think it doesn’t make sense to close the facility,” said Booth.

Next year deficit looms

As a soaring deficit cripples Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell met in late October behind closed doors with members of the Democratic caucus – a private meeting widely criticized by Republicans – where officials estimated next year’s budget shortfalls to be roughly $340 million.

In early November, Markell announced a plan to cut 525 state jobs through attrition to close staggering budget gaps.

So far, Markell has cut 1,000 state jobs and reduced the salaries of the state’s roughly 30,000 workers by 2.5 percent.

But in his November announcement, Markell said the 2011 budget will be brutal and he hinted at further cuts to the state’s corrections and health and human services departments.

Booth said Danberg said the state needed to close the building to get rid of 100 beds.

“We stated emphatically that there would be problems in operations in SCI dealing with administrative and disciplinary segregation of prisoners,” said Booth.

“We questioned the safety of guards and other prisoners.”

Booth said he asked Danberg for a master plan and priority list of proposed Department of Correction cuts. “He told us we weren’t privy to a priority list. Danberg said he would give us a master plan in two weeks. He never did. I haven’t seen one yet,” said Booth.

He said he also asked the Controller General’s Office for a list that he has not yet received.

Danberg said he would consult with legislators – again – and the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware before recommending the cuts to the governor, said Booth.

President Stephen Martelli, of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the Georgetown-based, multi-security building will not be shut down. “No one leaves. I’m sticking by it. Everyone stays in Georgetown working. Danberg has told me no people are leaving,” he said.

Upcoming hearings

Following the October meeting, however, Booth said he reviewed an early fiscal year 2011 operating budget at Legislative Hall. Within that budget was the closure of the multi-security building, an effort estimated to save $1 million.

Throughout November, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is holding public hearings, meeting with each state agency to see where cuts might be made. The Department of Correction hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 19.

“Where I’m upset is that I don’t think Commissioner Danberg was upfront with us, knowing this presentation was already put together in preparation for a budget meeting. What he told us at the meeting on Oct. 29 doesn’t appear to be close to what he will present Nov. 19,” said Booth. “If he told us one thing on the 29th, and apparently, he’s doing another thing a week later, he could do anything. I don’t think that Sussex County legislators can get into a room and be disrespected. I’m very disappointed with how we were treated.”

Multiple attempts to reach Danberg were not successful at press time.

Booth said he understands that cuts need to be made statewide; however, the way discussions were handled was underhanded.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said she, too, is frustrated with not being kept in the loop.

“The numbers vary depending on what they’re going to do. At one point, it was not their intent to make so many cuts. Last week, they proposed a budget showing losses. It’s not a consistent message. Now they’re talking about closing part of the maximum-security building,” she said.

Atkins said SCI has one of the smallest employee-turnover rates in the state. “I want to make it clear, I want to keep these jobs at SCI,” he said Atkins. “Why he would want to eliminate those jobs, I don’t know.”

Booth said legislators from both sides of the aisle met with Danberg to see how the cuts would affect their constituents.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat question. This is a question about Sussex County. We’re interested in what’s going on here in Sussex County,” said Booth.

Booth said the cuts and restructuring are slated to take place by Thursday, Dec. 31.

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