Prison head describes life behind bars

Mental illness, violence a reality
September 1, 2017

The head of Delaware's prisons says 30 percent of prisoners have mental illness, and of them, about 15 percent are considered seriously mentally ill.

But for the most part, Department of Corrections Commissioner Perry Phelps said, people in jail deserve to be there. He said 51 percent of the prison population are violent offenders compared to 10 percent who are in for drug charges.

“There is one officer for 40, 50, 60 inmates,” said Phelps. “Some people come at you like a friend. But others, you know how many death threats I've had? I still get them.”

Phelps spoke to about 50 people Aug. 29 who attended a Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice event in Lewes, using a powerpoint presentation to punctuate his speech. Staffing continues to be an issue at the state's prisons, and Phelps made a pitch several times for people to apply. “If you want to be part of the solution, come see us,” he said.

Several audience members asked Phelps how a lawsuit filed by Community Legal Aid Socity and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware has affected prison life.

Phelps said he supports the new rules on solitary confinement and restrictive housing units that resulted following the lawsuit, and all prisons should be offering more time outside the cell for those inmates.

For example, he said, an inmate who gets in a fight could get 15 days in solitary for that incident. If he then throws feces at someone it's another 15 days, and if he takes a swing at a correctional officer that would be another 15 days. Some inmates can end up in solitary for half a year. But under the new rules, every 15 days, inmates can get a break for 15 days before they have to go back into solitary to complete their sanction.

One woman asked if inmates are sent to the “hole,” a term used by some to describe solitary confinement.

Phelps dispelled the idea of a cell tucked away in a deep, dark basement with a little light swinging, water dripping and mice running around.

“Our restrictive housing is no different from any other housing. They all have lights, they have beds, they have windows, they have everything. The only thing different is the access to privileges,” he said.

Broken down geographically, the largest number of people in prison are from Wilmington with 27 percent of the prison population. Dover is second with 12 percent. Lewes, Rehoboth and Milton represent 1 percent or less of the state's prison population.

Phelps said education is the biggest difference between those who are in prison and those who are not.

Social bridging can help people in lower socioeconomic groups understand the value of an education. People from high and low socioeconomic classes must work together, whether on the sports fields or other activities, to find their common ground. Phelps said connections made during those activities can make a difference for a person at risk.

“I was born poor and black,” he said. “The reason my sons are doing better than I was when I was their age, I attribute to the social networks that we have.”

Phelps used his younger son who played lacrosse as an example.

“Who plays lacrosse?” he asked audience members. “White boys,” was the collective reply.

And to Phelps' question about their parents' occupation, the response was doctors and lawyers.

“Exactly,” he said. “That created a social network for us.”

His son interned this summer with a surgeon – a contact made through social bridging, Phelps said.

Similar contacts could help inmates reintegrate into society once they are released from prison.

“Do we forgive and forget, or do we give someone a sentence of second-class citizenship?” he asked.

Phelps encouraged members of the audience to support funding for the $295 million prison system. Personnel expenses are the largest expense, he said, but there is about $60 million a year in medical expenses. There are 179 people being treated for HIV, hepatitis C and other illnesses who cost $1 million a month to treat, he said.

In answer to a question about officer training, Phelps said he tries to instill civility in his guards, despite a constant barrage of insults and profanities hurled at them by inmates.

“It's not us versus them,” he said. “We have to work together if we want people to reintegrate.”

Report released

Gov. John Carney commissioned an independent review of security in Delaware's prisons following the Feb. 1 siege of a Smyrna prison that resulted in the death of a correctional officer.

Lt. Steven Floyd was killed after inmates took over a building at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and held it during a 19-hour standoff. Four staff members were also taken hostage.

Floyd's death was ruled homicide by trauma. Details of his death have not been released, despite a plea from Floyd's wife, Sandra, asking for the information. Floyd's family and five correctional officers filed a federal lawsuit in April against former governors Jack Markell and Ruth Ann Minner, former Department of Correction commissioners Stanley Taylor, Carl C. Danberg, Robert Coupe and Phelps, former Office of Management and Budget directors Ann Visalli, Brian Maxwell and current director Michael S. Jackson.

In June, a preliminary report was released by former U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly and retired Judge William L. Chapman, who are doing the independent review.

The final report had been scheduled for release Aug. 15, but Carney extended the deadline to Friday, Sept. 1, the date Phelps said the report would be released.