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June 08, 2017

ACLU: Delaware prison hostage situation was ‘preventable,’ spurred by mass incarceration

The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware spoke up Wednesday about the 18-hour hostage incident that occurred at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in February and resulted in the death of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd Sr.

Correctional officers Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson were also held hostage during the event. After the incident, Smith told The News Journal details of being beaten by inmates after what the officer believes was a staged fight to “distract and then overpower the staff.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Delaware Gov. John Carney announced his plan to reform and improve conditions that led to the February incident, noting the prison’s staff vacancies and other inefficiencies in contributing to the event. The announcement came just a few days after a post-riot review found the prison was poorly managed.

“One of the most important issues that we all know about is staffing and compensation,” Carney said. “There are over 100 vacancies for correctional officers in the system, so if we added additional correctional officers, which we will take a look at, until we fill the current vacancies, we’re not going to make progress on staffing levels.”

Improving the sheer number of correctional officers, as well as their training, was the main thread in Carney’s announcement. Additional cameras and a new bureau chief of community correction are also part of his plan.

“The goal in all this is to, frankly, change the culture at James T. Vaughn and through the system,” Carney said.

The governor's plan has been greeted with skepticism from people like Wilmington attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, part of the legal team representing the correctional officers who were taken hostage, as well as Floyd’s widow. With state debt hitting $400 million, Neuberger insists there are other ways to improve the culture of the prison, such as sending non-violent inmates home to help with overcrowding.

“If the money's not there for a secure prison system, on July 1, the governor, by executive action, should decrease the prison population so there is a safe ration of [correctional officers] to violent prisoners,” Neuberger told The News Journal. “Send non-violent inmates home to their families and community and put enough officers in Vaughn to control the gangs and killers who took the life of Lt. Steven Floyd.”

Since the February hostage situation, the ACLU of Delaware has assessed the case and agrees that Floyd's death could have been prevented with better prison conditions, including reducing the number of those imprisoned and considering more significantly the hundreds of complaints from inmates about inhumane prison conditions.

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Delaware hosted a special event, "Beyond James T. Vaughn: Fixing DE's Broken Prisons," which addressed concerns about the prison's living conditions.

“I think the system is in crisis, and we have to figure out how it’s going to move forward,” Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, told NewsWorks. “I think that the Legislature needs to be aware of the fact that Delaware incarcerates at twice the rate of the United States government and two to three times the rate of New Jersey. There’s no reason we have to incarcerate at such a high rate to protect our community.”

So far in 2017, complaints from prisoners at Vaughn Correctional Center have already reached around 450, about the average for a year.

“We didn’t realize until the National Lawyers Guild did the analysis that the rising complaints in the four months before Feb. 1 and 2 were so significant,” MacRae said.