Prison secured, correctional officer killed in standoff

Delaware Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe, right, takes questions from the media as Delaware Correctional Commissioner Perry Phelps, center, and Gov. John Carney, left, look on during a press conference at the Central Violation Probation Center in Smyrna on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Update ( 11 a.m.): During a Thursday morning press conference, it was confirmed that correctional officer Sgt. Steven Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the DOC, was killed in the standoff in the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. After breaching the building at approximately 5 a.m. Thursday, authorities were able to locate the other hostage, a female corrections counselor within two minutes and evacuate her safely from the building. She was uninjured. Officials went as far as to say that some inmates may have been actively “shielding” her from harm.

Late Wednesday night, three maintenance workers who’d been hiding in the basement of the facility and had gone undetected by the inmates were able to escape to the roof and get rescued by the DOC and State Police teams on the premises, officials said.

The decision to breach Building C, where the inmates were barricaded, came when negotiation experts determined that there was significant stalling and fear for the remaining hostage’s well being was rising, officials explained.

Earlier in negotiations, the inmates had bargained to have the water in Building C turned back on so they could “hydrate”, but they instead used the water to fill footlockers to add weight and blocked entryways with them, officials said. A breaching vehicle being provided by the Maryland State Police was en route, but the urgency of the situation called for immediate action, officials said.  The DOC entry team was able to use a backhoe to gain entry.

After successfully securing Building C, all 120 inmates, including those who exited the building earlier are being treated as suspects. They have been examined medically, searched and are now being secured in another facility.

“Right now we are processing the crime scene, which is the entire building,” said Delaware Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe.

None of the inmates had “reportable” injuries said Mr. Coupe. He notes that the DOC will be cooperating with the Attorney General to ensure that the responsible parties are “brought to justice.”

Building C is a transitional building for inmates going through the prison’s disciplinary process – either inmates from lower security being transitioned up to higher or vice versa, officials explained.

Responding to questions at the press conference about the facility being short staffed, Mr. Coupe noted that the DOC has roughly 1,700 positions and on any given day they typically carry 90 vacancies. This shortfall is made up through overtime and cancelling programs and visitations when necessary, Mr. Coupe explained. As far as taking responsibility for the prison hostage situation, Mr. Coupe said that it belonged with him and Delaware Correctional Commissioner Perry Phelps.

“We are accountable, we own this,” he said.

“It’s a very sad day across the state of Delaware with the loss of one of our brave correctional officers,” said Governor John Carney. “While today we mourn, we have to investigate what happened here and determine the facts so we can make sure it never happens again.”

Gov. Carney noted that he has ordered to have the flags in the state flown at half staff Thursday out of respect for the deceased officer.

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SMYRNA – One correctional officer has been killed in the standoff that began Wednesday at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

At 5:06 a.m., Delaware State Police breached Building C where the standoff began and rescued a female correction employee who is alert and talking and being examined at an area hospital, according to correction officials. The remaining hostage, the correctional officer, was found unresponsive upon entry. He was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m.

The building is secure, officials said, but the Department of Correction continues to operate under emergency procedures.

Gov. John Carney in a statement from his office released this morning said, “I’m praying hard for the fallen officer’s family. This serves as a tragic reminder that members of law enforcement risk their lives every day on behalf of the people of Delaware. We will stand by the fallen officer’s family and fellow law enforcement officers during what is an extremely difficult time.”

“This was a long and agonizing situation. I want to thank all those involved in responding, including officers at the Department of Correction and the Delaware State Police, as well as our federal partners. Our priority now will be to determine what happened and how this happened. We will hold accountable anyone who was responsible. And we will make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

A news release from the Delaware Department of Correction says 14 additional inmates were released around 12:30 a.m. Thursday and are being held elsewhere at the prison.

At that point, 82 inmates remained in Building C, according to correction officials.

The takeover began at approximately 10:30 a.m. when the inmates took four correctional officers hostage.

Two of the four hostages were released from Building C Wednesday along with 27 inmates. The first hostage released Wednesday afternoon was treated for non-life threatening injuries. Officials said they were unable to comment on how many, if any, inmates were being held against their will in addition to two remaining hostages.

“At this time the investigation is ongoing and we don’t know the dynamics of the takeover and we don’t know if there are some inmates being held against their will,” said Secretary of the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Robert Coupe in a press conference Wednesday night.

Mr. Coupe noted that officials were in contact with the inmates who have taken control of Building C through a correctional officer’s radio, and they were in the middle of attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution. He also mentioned that as the inmates have access to TV in the building, they were likely watching live coverage of the incident. During the press conference, he made the following entreaty to them:

“We’d like to resolve this peacefully.”

Gov. John Carney addressed the media at the press conference as well.

A SWAT team arrives at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Wednesday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

“Our focus throughout the day has been on the safety of our correctional employees,” he said “That will continue to be our focus. I’ve talked to their families, and, as you can imagine, this is very difficult for them as well. We’ve put all our resources to bear to get our employees out.”

The Delaware Department of Correction put Vaughn, and all other Level 5 prisons in the state, on lockdown when the event began. A statement released in the afternoon said that “Department of Correction Response Teams and the Delaware State Police are on scene responding to a hostage situation at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.”

The incident was first reported at 10:55 a.m. when Citizens’ Hose Company received a call and proceeded to the facility at 1181 Paddock Road. Clayton and Cheswold run logs also showed their companies responded.

Countless emergency vehicles streamed into the facility and filled the parking lot. In one 10-minute window Wednesday, six ambulances from various companies arrived as a helicopter circled overhead.

Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said early Wednesday that “We’re hearing that three to five correctional officers have been taken hostage and the inmates have control of the building.”

Emergency vehicles arrive at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. (Special to the Delaware State News photo by Doug Curran)

According to the Department of Correction website, Vaughn Correctional Center is the state’s largest adult, male correctional facility and houses approximately 2,500 inmates.

The facility houses minimum, medium, and maximum security inmates and is the primary facility for housing the Kent County pre-trial (detainee) population.

At Legislative Hall Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, the chair of the Senate Corrections Committee, was listening to a scanner as budget hearings wrapped up in Dover and keeping abreast of the hostage situation.

Several lawmakers left budget hearings to field calls from the governor about the situation, and legislators took a break during hearings to talk privately about the incident.

Sgt. Richard Bratz, of the Delaware State Police, issues a statement about the hostage situation at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna Wednesday afternoon. (Special to the Delaware State News photo by Doug Curran)

The last major incident occurred at Vaughn in 2004 when a 27-year-old prison counselor was abducted and raped July 12 by inmate Scott A.Miller at the Delaware Correctional Center near Smyrna. Miller was eventually shot and killed by a correctional officer after a nearly seven-hour standoff.

Mel Durand, who lives within a mile of the prison, headed out to Wawa for coffee Wednesday afternoon in case he lost access to the highway because of the hostage incident.

He said he didn’t receive a robo-call or any warning or alert about the crisis from prison officials. “Usually they’ll come by and let you know when something is up,” he said. “I heard from my daughter who saw it on Facebook.”

Mr. Duran said he wasn’t worried for his safety. “They’re in there right now and they aren’t going anywhere. Even if they got out, they would’t stick around here.”

He has lived in close proximity to the maximum-security prison for 30 years and said he hadn’t experienced anything quite like this.

Staff writer Matt Bittle contributed to this story.

A Delaware State Police vehicle rushes to Vaughn Correctional Center Wednesday. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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