Masks accepted from one group, refused from another
On June 25, it was announced that Sen. Darius Brown (D-Wilmington) had “brokered” a 5,000 face mask donation from REFORM to the department.
According to a press release from the Brown’s Senate Majority Caucus, REFORM’s masks will be worn by inmates and visitors during visitation sessions and by those who lead instructional programs, activities and faith-based programs.
“Without the REFORM Alliance face mask donation, DOC may have needed to procure [personal protective equipment] supplies at additional cost,” the press release stated.
Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware and its campaign manager, Chris Coffey, were angered by the news.
“We offered 4,600 masks to the Delaware Department of Correction to protect inmates nearly two months ago, but were turned away by the agency, which claimed it had ‘sufficient supply chain’ to procure the masks it needed,” Coffey said. “That the DOC accepted masks when they came from the REFORM Alliance makes it painfully clear that this was a politically-motivated lie.”
But according to DOC Chief of Community Relations Jason Miller, “it is absolutely not about politics.”
Beginning around 2015, Delaware courts were the setting for a long and complex legal battle between exes over ownership of their translation company, TransPerfect.
TransPerfect employees hired the New York-based Tusk Strategies, where Coffey is a public relations specialist, to look out for their interests in the case. Coffey formed the government advocacy group Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware. The membership includes many TransPerfect employees.
Coffey said they’ve since rebranded to “fight for transparency and diversity in the court system.”
Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware has been critical of Gov. John Carney over the years, at first mostly relating to his court appointments. As the group’s focus pivoted, so did their criticisms.
On April 28, Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware issued a press release urging the governor to create a task force to address racial disparities in coronavirus rates.
The press release also criticized the Department of Correction for failing to provide all prisoners with masks.
A few hours later, Coffey emailed an acquaintance of his, Department of Correction Social Media and Marketing Coordinator Kate Weber.
“Hey there. We have 4,600 masks for the inmates at Vaughn,” the email said. “Will the state take them?”
Yes, then no
The next morning, Weber replied that they would accept the masks, but asked Coffey to contact Maj. Christopher G. Kearney to coordinate.
“I have 4,600 masks. One for each inmate. Can I deliver tomorrow or next day? Thanks very much,” Coffey emailed Kearney.
Kearney steered him to Jason Miller, department chief of communications and community relations.
“Hey Chris. Thanks so much for reaching out to us,” Miller wrote. “The DOC has reviewed our inventory of face masks and has determined that with our current inventory and existing procurement of face masks, including through Delaware Correctional Industries, we have sufficient supply chain to meet our needs. We recognize that there remains a need in the community for these items and we want to encourage you to donate the masks at your disposal to organizations that are experiencing short supply. Thanks again for your kind offer.”
Later, Coffey emailed back, “Jason, it was clear yesterday that inmates don’t have masks... Most folks can make their own masks or buy masks. Inmates cannot… If you want to turn them down, it’s up to you. But they will be there tomorrow.”
Miller responded by listing all the ways in which the department had acted to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, pointing out that masks had already been issued to over 2,000 inmates and again declining.
Coffey said that he told Miller the masks would be delivered to the prison to “push the issue,” but ended up partnering with the NAACP to distribute them.
When asked why the department accepted REFORM’s masks, Miller said that REFORM’s offer was “unconditional,” while Citizens sought to distribute masks to each inmate, specifically.
“Community organizations do not dictate to the DOC how to maintain safety and security in its facilities. That includes decisions about the distribution of face masks to inmates,” Miller said. “Mr. Coffey’s communications with DOC asserted their understanding that inmates were not being given face masks. He wrote specifically to the DOC: ‘I have 4,600 masks. One for each inmate.’ That condition seems very clear.”
Coffey said Citizens would have allowed the DOC to use the masks at their disposal.
“There was never a conversation,” he said. “This was all over email.”
Face masks have now been provided to over two-thirds of Delaware inmates, including those in infirmaries, with compromised immune systems, with certain jobs, such as food service, all inmates at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Sussex Correctional Institution and Sussex Community Corrections Center and around 250 inmates at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington.
The Department of Correction announced 25 new cases of the coronavirus at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown on Friday, July 3.