DOVER, Del. -- An attorney who helped lead prison reform efforts after a deadly inmate riot has been tapped by Delaware Gov. John Carney to head the state's corrections system.
Carney announced Tuesday that he is nominating Claire DeMatteis to replace Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps.
Phelps plans to retire July 15 following a brief tenure marked by the February 2017 riot, lawsuits alleging mistreatment of inmates and chronic staffing and morale problems.
"I have full confidence that Claire's experience and leadership qualities will serve our state well at the Department of Correction," Carney said in a prepared statement.
Last month, Carney declined to express confidence in Phelps amid allegations that contract prison medical workers were falsifying inmate treatment records.
DeMatteis said her top priority would be safety and security in DOC facilities for staff, inmates and members of the public. She also acknowledged that ensuring safety and security depends on maintaining adequate staffing.
As of Tuesday, there were 188 vacancies in the correctional officer ranks statewide, including 75 vacancies at the maximum-security James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna. That's down from about 260 vacancies a year after the riot, and 237 vacancies reported in November, when DOC officials said they were transferring up to 330 prisoners from Vaughn to facilities in Pennsylvania in an effort to reduce overtime for understaffed correctional officers.
Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said Tuesday that overtime hours are down, and that much of the overtime is to cover for staffers who are receiving training.
Klopp welcomed DeMatteis' appointment, saying she has the right skill set to lead the corrections system.
"We've already started to make progress, and she's just going to be able to continue to move forward," he said.
"The number one priority continues to be staffing in all the facilities," Klopp added. "After that, our priority is giving these inmates the skills they need to succeed on the outside when we release them."
DeMatteis said she would continue to work on improving programs and services for inmates, as well as re-entry initiatives to improve the ability of former prisoners to successfully reintegrate into the community. She currently is serving as a special assistant coordinating comprehensive re-entry initiatives across six state agencies, including the departments of Correction, Education, Labor, and Health and Social Services.
"That work is key to the future of the Department of Correction," she said.
Despite chronic problems with prison staffing, inmate medical care and lack of programming, DeMatteis said she believes she can make a difference.
"I wouldn't have accepted the appointment if I didn't," she said.
Carney is asking the state Senate to confirm DeMatteis' nomination later this month.
Carney initially turned to DeMatteis in June 2017, hiring her as a special assistant to help implement recommendations contained in an independent review of the Vaughn prison riot. The review found that DOC officials' dismissal of warnings about trouble brewing at the prison reflected an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.
The state's response included boosting correctional officer pay, investing in equipment and training and improving communications among DOC staffers and administrators.
DeMatteis worked as a legal assistant to Republican Gov. Mike Castle before serving as senior counsel for Democratic Sen. Joe Biden from 1994-2004. She later spent four years at a Mid-Atlantic law firm with offices in Wilmington and also served as general counsel for New York-based Affinity Health Plan Inc., and Catalina Marketing Corp., a digital media marketing company.