Central Delaware
New Vaughn warden set to tackle facility’s challenges
David Pierce is the new warden at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

SMYRNA — After years of walking the floor at Delaware Department of Correction facilities, David Pierce is now sitting behind a big desk.

The new warden at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna aims to stay close to his career roots, however, and that means working to balance the delicate needs of officer guards, inmates and their families.

Mr. Pierce, a 41-year-old Milford High graduate, officially took charge of Vaughn this week after serving as a deputy warden at the facility that houses approximately 2,500 men at incarceration levels ranging from temporary holding for court dates to death row and administering court-ordered executions.

“The job of a warden is situational; a variety of things come up every day,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the warden to have a finger on the pulse of what’s going well and what aspects need to be addressed.”

The warden’s annual salary is $107,476, along with an additional $3,120 per year in hazard duty pay.

The rise to warden began unknowingly in the mid-1990s, when Mr. Pierce read a Delaware State News story noting the growth of the prison correctional system through approved state funding; state money had been appropriated for Vaughn’s expansion, and more guards would be needed to meet Delaware’s needs.

Vaughn’s eventual new warden (years later, of course) had worked in construction, restaurant management, and retail industries, but found career advancement in the private sector challenging. Plus, he was in need of medical benefits.

Few probably grow up wanting to be a DOC guard, and certainly Pierce didn’t. Within a short time of starting at Vaughn on Jan. 2, 1996, however, he had taken to the team-first approach as an education into incarceration work began.

“I worked with a lot of people and was mentored through a range of leadership styles,” he said. “Most of what you need to know is learned on the frontline and working with a team, being honest and upfront with the people you come in contact with.”

And now, the warden wants his officers to understand what they can and can’t do with no hesitation. He wants to “continue to have a clear policy and procedure for the staff to follow, along with increase training for staff and administration to keep moving forward.”

Warden Pierce is a proponent of Senate Bill 226 designed to lower recidivism rates and prisoners returning to the DOC after initial release, and supports justice reinvestment initiatives.

An automotive mechanics program and future culinary arts class — in partnership with the state Department of Education — are increasing inmate job skills upon release, which ups chances of not returning to the prison life.

“There’s a need to evaluate all inmate programming … and establish the best system possible of allowing them to leave with employable skills,” Mr. Pierce said.

Geoffrey Klopp, president of the approximately 1,650-member Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, worked with the warden when he was a corporal at Sussex Correctional Institution in 1998-99.

“He’s a good leader and he tries very hard to make the right decisions even though at times the decisions are difficult,” Mr. Klopp said.

“(Pierce) takes a common sense approach to leadership and administration duties.”

Mr. Klopp said that over the past 12 years, 58 percent of new DOC hires have left within three years. Increasing retention rates can be gained through better employee conditions, he said, and the union hopes to work with officials to adjust shift schedules to make life inside the walls more bearable.

“He’s trying to get us the tools we need,” Mr. Klopp said.

Mr. Pierce replaces Perry Phelps, who was appointed Chief of Bureau of Prisons earlier this summer.

“Warden Pierce has spent the past 10 years in a leadership position at Vaughn Correctional Center, so he has a great understanding of the staff, the facility and the population being supervised,” said Mr. Phelps in a DOC press release.

“He brings great experience and professionalism to the warden’s office and I look forward to working with him.”

After working as a deputy warden since 2004, Mr. Pierce said he had learned from all DOC leaders, including Mr. Phelps. Vaughn’s new warden also served stints at SCI and Kent Violation of Probation Center.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different wardens and picked on their approaches to handling things,” Mr. Pierce said. “Warden Phelps’s main attribute was taking a calm, patient approach to situations when time allowed.”

Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or Follow @DSNAnderson on Twitter.