Letter: Prisoner Relocation Plan

The following is an August 30 letter Reps. JJ Johnson and Larry Mitchell and Sen. Bruce Ennis sent to Governor Carney and Corrections Commissioner Phelps.

Dear Governor Carney and Commissioner Phelps:

Recently, it has come to our attention that your administration (via the Department of Correction) is considering a plan to potentially move an undisclosed number of prison inmates out of Delaware. This is purportedly being done due to the size of our prison population and the shortage of correctional officers to adequately guard the inmates.

We have several concerns with this plan, and we write to share those issues and urge you to abandon any plans to move large numbers of Delaware inmates out of state. This proposal will not address the underlying issues facing our correctional system, and it is more likely to create more problems than it will solve.

The inadequate staffing of our correctional facilities has been an ongoing issue for several years. While there still are a significant number of vacancies, your administration and the General Assembly have taken several critical steps toward improving staffing and reducing overtime. We have raised the starting salary of correctional officers, added positions to reduce the burden on existing officers, and invested in numerous security upgrades and equipment for officers.

We believe that rather than potentially move hundreds of Delaware residents to prisons in other states, it is more productive long-term to continue addressing the chronic understaffing of our correctional facilities. Moving inmates to out-of-state prisons will only mask that problem.

If we cannot adequately staff our prisons through normal recruitment, perhaps we should explore other options, such as contracting to fill those vacancies.

At the same time, we simply incarcerate too many people. Our prisons are overcrowded, which exacerbates the correctional officer staffing issue. On any given day, we have more than 1,000 people in Delaware prisons who have not been convicted of a crime. These detentioners, which comprise more than 20 percent of Delaware’s prison population, still require a space in our facilities, and it costs state funds to house, feed and provide security for them.

If we want to address our prison population, then there are more long-term and beneficial solutions than the shell game of shipping our overflow problem to other states. We must continue to pursue meaningful bail reform to ensure we are not warehousing detentioners simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

Regarding some of our convicted inmates, we must explore whether it is in the best interests of the prisoner and society to continue their incarceration. There are inmates with disabilities and those on hospice care who do not present a risk to society. We should seriously examine their crimes and determine whether we are doing the right thing by keeping them in prison.

Similarly, we should also consider sentence reductions for older inmates who are eligible for early release based on their age, medical condition and prospects upon release. The Project for Older Prisoners has existed in Delaware for nearly a decade, but it is woefully understaffed. With nearly 20 percent of inmates older than 50, programs like this could have a profound long-term impact on our prison population.

In light of our concerns about this inmate relocation proposal, we hope that you will reconsider this potential approach. Moving Delaware residents out of state will create a strain on families while at the same time avoid addressing the larger, systemic issues facing our correctional system. We in the General Assembly are committed to working with the administration to continue improving the situation through meaningful efforts.

Sincerely,

Rep. James “JJ” Johnson                           Sen. Bruce C. Ennis
House Corrections Committee Chair           Senate Corrections & Public Safety
                                                              Committee Chair

Rep. John L. “Larry” Mitchell
House Corrections Committee Vice-Chair