DOVER — Violent offenders being “down flowed” from maximum security cells to lower security housing at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center may have contributed to the inmate uprising on Feb. 1 that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead, claims Geoff Klopp, the president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware.
To be in compliance with an American Civil Liberties Union agreement adopted by the Delaware Department of Correction in 2016, Mr. Klopp said inmates known for being violent were “down flowed” to make room for inmates with special mental health needs. The lower security buildings they were being “down flowed” to included C Building, the site of the uprising, he said.
“The ACLU agreement contributed to Lt. Floyd’s murder,” he said. “A lot of those inmates shouldn’t have been in that building (C Building). They should have been in a more secure environment. What happened was that the state chose to enter into this agreement and moved a lot of the violent inmates that were housed in a maximum security setting over to C Building to make room for these mental health inmates who needed a certain type of housing to meet the ACLU requirements.”
The DOC flatly denies Mr. Klopp’s claim.
“Inmates are housed based on their classification score, which is derived from an objective tool that examines factors to include prior criminal history, institutional behavior, age and severity of crime,” said Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the DOC. “The ACLU agreement does not dictate housing — it only addresses the amounts of recreation and treatment offered to individuals in the areas identified as restrictive housing.”
But Mr. Klopp points to the recent addition of a designated mental health building as part of the cause. The Secure Housing Unit, which is maximum security, includes buildings 17, 18, 19 and 21, he explains.
“Inmates were flowed down from Building 21 because they turned it into a special mental health building,” he said.
Ms. Gravell said the additional housing was recently added to the Secure Housing Unit, actually creating more maximum security space.
“The ACLU agreement did not affect the housing of maximum security inmates, it’s inaccurate that inmates were moved to the C Building to make room for mental health inmates” she said. “In actuality, the elimination of the death penalty allowed for the creation of additional housing in the SHU. Furthermore, over the past eight months, the DOC increased beds in the SHU by a total of 96.”
While conceding that that’s true, Mr. Klopp said room was added only because inmates awaiting the death penalty were down flowed to lower security and the DOC removed a “recreation cage” from Building 19 and added an extra bunk to each cell — making what used to be single inmate cells into doubles.
“They down flowed these inmates to lower security, like C and B Building, even though they were on Death Row,” he said.
The ACLU agreement in question was the result of a lawsuit filed on the behalf of Community Legal Aid Society Inc. by lawyers from the ACLU of Delaware, Pepper Hamilton LLP. According to the ACLU’s website, Community Legal Aid Society had claimed that at least 100 prisoners with mental illness were being held in solitary confinement by the DOC under conditions known to worsen symptoms of mental illness such as paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts. On Sept. 6 2016, the ACLU announced that a settlement between the DOC and Community Legal Aid Society had been reached and subsequently approved.
Some highlights of the agreement the ACLU notes include:
•Greatly expanded mental health staffing and services for all inmates who need them
•Establishment of a mental health unit at Baylor women’s prison and construction of an additional facility at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center to house mental health services
•A requirement that mental health status be considered before an inmate can be placed in solitary confinement for discipline purposes
•An increase from 3 hours a week to 17.5 hours per week of out-of-cell time for most inmates held in solitary cells and significantly increased out-of-cell time for inmates who need therapeutic activities according to their individualized mental health treatment plan
•Implementation of a policy that in most cases prevents the release of inmates to the “street” directly from solitary conditions
Having no information on the decisions of DOC officials make regarding prisoner placement, Kathleen MacRae, executive director of ACLU of Delaware, said she had no comment on Mr. Klopp’s direct claim. But the ACLU issued a statement on Feb. 8 calling the correctional officers union’s past claims about the agreement “false” and “troubling.”
“It is utterly untrue and irresponsible for COAD to say that the settlement agreement turned control of our prison facilities over to inmates,” said Ms. MacRae in a press release.
In the same press release, Daniel Atkins, executive director of Community Legal Aid Society, expressed the belief that the agreement will ultimately lead to safer prisons in the state.
“Safe, humane and well-staffed prisons that provide treatment and opportunities for rehabilitation are in everybody’s interests,” he said. “The settlement agreement charted a path towards a much improved Delaware prison system that ultimately will enhance the safety of inmates, the people who work with them and the public.”
Unencumbered by the ACLU agreement, Mr. Klopp feels that prison administration could do a better job organizing a prioritizing the sections particular inmates are housed in. Adopting the ACLU agreement, in his opinion, was a mistake.
“You have people making decisions about how to run a prison that have never stepped foot in one — judges and mental health professionals instead of wardens and correctional officers,” he said. “We never should have entered into the ACLU agreement, we (COAD) believe it’s flawed.”
To some degree, Mr. Klopp thinks the public impression of inmates’ conditions is misunderstood — claiming that many already enjoy a fair amount of autonomy.
“There seems to be this perception that all the inmates are locked down all the time, but over half the inmates at James T. Vaughn aren’t even in locked cells,” he said. “In S1 Building we have 200 inmates doing life in prison and they have the keys to their own doors and they let themselves in and out of their cell. They have to stay on the tier, but we hardly have a problem with those guys because they’ve accepted what they’ve done, they’re trying to make the best of their lives and take personal accountability.”
DOC staff leaving
On Thursday, Mr. Klopp noted that since the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, 17 DOC staff members have quit. Most were correctional officers, but some were other staff, he said. A handful quit effective immediately, but several others filed for early retirements. Not all the officers who quit were working at JTVCC, but Mr. Klopp feels that the reason for the rash of resignations is due to staff not feeling safe. He is concerned that the trend will continue, exacerbating an already troubling “understaffed” prison system.
Feeding into the unrest among staff, Mr. Klopp confirmed that inmates submitted a “hit list” with the names of 17 officers that they wanted removed from the facility when they were making their demands during the hostage negotiations. For safety reasons, the names aren’t being released. The demand was phrased in a way to suggest that if the officers weren’t fired, they would be injured in some way. Mr. Klopp could not say if any of the officers on the “hit list” were the same officers who quit since the uprising, but the idea that inmates are targeting staff was troubling.
Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at firstname.lastname@example.org