On Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, after nearly 20 hours of negotiations, the hostage situation at the James T. Vaughn Correction Center in Smyrna Delaware came to end. The aftermath brings to light problems in the prison system.
Delaware law enforcement officials broke down the door to Building C at 5:00 a.m. EST. The scene the officers encountered when they finally were able to get into the prison was one that they had hoped to avoid. Officers found a female counselor unharmed and being protected by inmates. Unfortunately, though, they later discovered Sgt. Steven Floyd, unresponsive. Floyd, 47, who had been employed with DOC for 16 years, was later pronounced dead. His death has been ruled a homicide due to trauma.
Sgt. Floyd, a father, and husband, warned other lieutenants to get out of the building. Delaware officials would not comment on what led up to hostage event, but Geoff Klopp, president of the Delaware Correctional Officers Association, said Thursday in a press conference, that inmates had staged a fight as a trap. After Floyd had called a Code Three (inmate on inmate fight) the inmates stopped fighting and threw him into a closet. As lieutenants started to come into Building C, Floyd warned them of the trap and urged them to get out of the building.
During the crisis on Wednesday, the counselor, along with a small group of other hostages, talked to a Willmington, Delaware paper, The News Journal. An inmate had been directed by the hostage takers to call his fiancé and instruct her to call the paper. The inmate, along with the counselor, gave the publication a list of demands from the captors.
The counselor stated that prisoners had taken 126 hostages inside the Delaware correctional facility, but she was not allowed to continuing speaking. An inmate read off the list of requests.
The demands included improved education and rehabilitation programs. Prisoners expressed concerns about President Trump, his actions, and their belief that his presidency may change the facility for the worse.
Problems at the Delaware prison had been growing for a while, and the hostage situation was not a surprise to all. Court filings and lawsuits show that the issues the inmates spoke of had been echoed numerous times. According to Stephen Hampton, letters to his law practice, which serves many inmates at the prison, have increased lately. The problems they spoke of in the letters were consistent with the demands they gave Wednesday. Inmates complained of overcrowding, issues with prison guards, and sentencing problems. Hampton explained that even though the prisoners have valid issues, it does not excuse their actions.
Health care access and record keeping is an issue in Delaware prisons. The problem seems to be growing at Vaughn, which has seen an increase in complaints. Frustrations due to overcrowding and the difficulty of obtaining information add to the problems. Hampton believes it may have been a situation that just “got out of hand quickly.”
Thursday morning, saw the arrival of protesters, who converged outside of the inmate controlled building to support the prisoners. Demonstraters emphasized the need for the inmates to be heard and their rights respected.
Among the protesters, was former Vaughn inmate. Isiah McCoy. He had been a death row prisoner. Last month he was acquitted of murder charges. According to McCoy, correction officers beat prisoners and were often oppressive. He laid the blame on the Department of Corrections’ methods of hiring. He claimed services for inmates that could help improve their futures are inadequate. He said:
People are just sick and tired of being oppressed, sick and tired of being without their families.
The hostage situation brought to light questions about problems in Delaware prisons. McCoy said now the issue should be how to make sure that this does not happen again.
Brother Debro Abdul Akbar, who served seven and a half years at Vaugh, between the late 70’s through the early 80’s, has become an advocate for the prisoners. He speaks with inmates on a regular basis and helps them with Actual Innocence Project. Started in May of 2016, Actual Innocence Project reviews petitions from inmates who have evidence that shows they did not commit a crime.
Akbar, who has spent a lot of time with prisoners at the Delaware prison over the last half year, said he was aware of their frustration. Inmates have complained about rehabilitation and education programs being removed, and inmates with health conditions not having their needs met. Restricted library hours, not enough time to exercise, and accusations of inmates being locked down for excessive amounts of time have also troubled the Delaware prisoners.
Delaware state officials and correctional officers pointed to staffing problems as a major contribution to the takeover of the prison. Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps admitted that the department always has positions that need to fulfilled. Salaries for correction officers begin at a little more than $31,000.
President of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, Geoff Klopp, issued a statement in which he said the COAD family believes that Sgt. Floyd’s death is a result of staffing problems that have been an ongoing issue at the DOC during former Governor Jack Markell’s administration. Klopp also blamed inadequate pay for correctional officers as part of the problem. Conversations about staffing, overtime and employee retention have been going on for a while. Klopp and Governor John Carney have discussed the situation, and are hopeful that they can bring about results that will correct the issues that have been plaguing the DOC for the last decade.
Ending The Hostage Situation
While onlookers and media watched the scene unfold from a safe distance in Delaware, negotiations, that can be described as tense, were taking place. Almost four hours into the crisis, the first DOC employee was released. He suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was treated. Later that night, eight inmates came out of the building, soon, an additional 19 emerged. At 8:00 p.m. a second employee of the DOC was released.
Negotiations continued with the inmates on a radio that had been taken from a correctional officer. The inmates were able to get the water turned backed on after claiming to need it for drinking. However, they used the water to fill footlockers and create a barricade.
At one point, the negotiations were broadcast live on the internet for over an hour. The prisoners demanded a formal apology from Carney for the “oppression they suffered” before the transmission was blocked.
At 5:00 a.m. officers used heavy equipment to get into the prison which holds about 2,500 inmates. Officials are not sure how many of the inmates took part in the takeover of the prison in Delaware. Some prisoners helped protect the female counselor during the crisis.
The situation is still being investigated and has raised concerns about problems within the Delaware prison systems and in prisons around the country. It has brought to light issues that need to be addressed and the need for solutions to be found.
By Jessica Hamel
Edited by Cathy Milne
New Jersey Herald: Police storm prison, end hostage standoff; guard found dead
USA Today: Delaware prison siege was long-time coming, some say
The News Journal: Delaware prison siege ends in officer’s death
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