Delaware Prison Chief Improves Safety, Visibility & Communication

By Lindsey Coulter

Steven Wesley did not begin his career with the goal of one day leading a correctional department. However, after serving as a police officer with both the Fremont, Calif., and Oakland, Calif., police departments; working in the Delaware Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services; and serving as warden III for New Castle County Community Corrections in New Castle, Del., and warden IV at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, Del., stepping into his new role as Bureau Chief of Prisons for the Delaware Department of Correction was a natural next step.

Wesley was named to his new position in May of this year by Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps. In a statement, Commissioner Phelps called Wesley a proven leader who had earned the respect of both his colleagues and the community.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2002 and master’s degree in urban affairs and public policy in 2005, both from the University of Delaware, Wesley was well prepared academically to take on the new role. Additionally, his more than 30 years of training and experience in policing, probation/parole, juvenile services and corrections made him an ideal candidate. As Bureau Chief of Prisons, Wesley is now primarily responsible for the state’s four secure, level five facilities and provides oversight for the special operations group, prison education programs, correctional industries, food services and facilities maintenance. Delaware’s correctional population generally includes between 6,500 and 7,000 inmates supported by approximately 2,500 staff members, 1,700 of which are sworn officers.

“I’ll also be responsible for moving the commissioner’s vision — as well as his Restart and Rebuild Initiative — forward. I’ll have my hands full,” Wesley said.

The Restart and Rebuild Initiative, according to Wesley, will take a look at several key areas of the department, primarily improving safety and security. As a February 2017 riot at Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna rocked the department and left one correctional officer dead, the department is committed now more than ever to doing better. Wesley describes the Restart and Rebuild Initiative as an effort to push the department forward in terms of incorporating technology and best practices as well as building better communication lines with staff, inmates and the community.

“Our mission is public safety and rehabilitation as well as managing safe and humane facilities for inmates and staff,” Wesley said.

As such, the department recently received approval and a $2 million budget from the governor’s office to implement more cameras and safety equipment. “We’re going to also continue to instill the overall management style and philosophy of being responsive, accessible and accountable,” Wesley added.

The Delaware Department of Correction also plans to increase the visibility of wardens and those in upper management by encouraging these leaders to spend more time walking the floors and interacting with facility staff. “We’re going to encourage visibility so staff see the wardens and executive staff on a more regular basis and feel [these leaders are] a part of the overall team,” Wesley added.

Expanding on that mission, Wesley also plans to examine the Bureau of Prisons’ overall organizational culture and make assessments of where operations stand, where they need to be and how to get them there.

“I believe in being very responsive, accessible and accountable. If you put all those things together you’re in a good position to do good things,” he added.

That leadership philosophy was honed during Wesley’s tenure as warden of Howard R. Young Correctional Institution, which he calls the best job in the department. Howard R. Young is also the busiest correctional facility in the state, which Wesley said prepared him well for thriving in a fast-paced environment.

“[Being a warden] has given me insight into what staff go through on a daily basis because I was a very hands-on and participatory warden,” he explained. “Managing by walking around and just having an overall knowledge of how an institution runs lends itself well to the role of bureau chief.”

Wesley — an ACA and North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents member who also sits on the board of Delaware Criminal Justice Council — further hopes that his tenure will help dispel the general misconception that the state operates on a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality, when in actuality the goal is rehabilitation and release.

“[The bureau] believes in education, evidence-based programming and treatment so that we put [inmates] in a better position to have a more successful path when they re-enter their community,” he said. “We want to release them better than we received them.”

Working toward self-improvement has been a consistent theme in Wesley’s own life, but he also credits his professional success to having managers and supervisors who recognized his skills and gave him opportunities to take on greater responsibility.

“[In everything,] there’s a degree of luck and there’s a degree of opportunity, and it’s a matter of the individual taking advantage of that opportunity,” Wesley added. “That window of opportunity only stays open for a short period of time, so I try to always take advantage and work hard.”

To read the entire article, check out the July/August issue of Correctional News.