Delaware sued over prison riot

 

Wilmington Attorney Thomas Neuberger announces a suit was filed on behalf of the estate and survivors of a deceased correctional officer, as well as five fellow correctional officers, resulting from the recent takeover by inmates at the prison near Smyrna. (Special to Delaware State) News/Gary Emeigh

WILMINGTON — Survivors of the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead filed a lawsuit against the state and several of its officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages on Tuesday morning.

Attorneys Thomas Neuberger and Tom Crumplar, who are representing the plaintiffs, held a press conference to detail the freshly filed federal lawsuit and bring his clients before the public.

“The public deserves to see the face of law enforcement behind our prison walls,” said Mr. Neuberger. “They’re here today because I forced them to be. They are not recovering well. They are suffering constant flashbacks, nightmares, terror, insomnia, post-traumatic stress syndrome — I could go on an on.”

The 52-page federal complaint lists Lt. Floyd’s widow and children and the five other officers who were held hostage as plaintiffs. Defendants include former governors Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, along with Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps and three former commissioners, and state budget director Michael Jackson and his predecessors. Much of the complaint rests on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long ignored staffing issues within the Department of Correction.

Saundra Floyd, widow of correctional officer Steven Floyd, wipes away tears as attorney Thomas Crumplar describes some of the events that occurred when prisoners took over Building C at the correctional center near Smyrna. (Special to
Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

“After an exhaustive two-month investigation, today we charge that for 16 years it has been the policy of two governors in Delaware deliberately not to employ enough officers to safely run Delaware’s prisons,” said Mr. Neuberger. “Instead they spent up to $23 million per year forcing understaffed officers to work 16 hour shifts overtime to save money at the expense of putting their lives at risk.”

The complaint lays out an extensive list of claims that paints a picture of widespread negligent behavior among top elected and appointed officials. It alleges that both governor’s administrations sought to not only dismiss mounting issues within the DOC, but willfully obfuscate and hide the extent to which the state’s prison system was ailing.

Although Gov. Carney is not named as a defendant in the complaint, it makes mention of an earlier request to have Lt. Floyd’s autopsy report privately released to his family that was ignored and comments on an alleged policy breach.

The DOC policy manual states that the warden is to become the “ultimate commander” in the event of a major emergency and remains in charge until the situation is resolved. The complaint claims that former JTVCC warden David Pierce had approved a prison emergency response team to retake the prison building in question and rescue the hostages within an hour of the uprising’s start. However, he was allegedly overruled by Gov. Carney who halted the rescue attempt “for presently unknown reasons.” This “enraged” the warden, the complaint says.

Mr. Pierce has since been reassigned to the Bureau of Community Corrections within the DOC, according to DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.

Calls to action ignored

Correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd (front right) was killed by inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna during the Feb. 1 uprising. (Special to Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

The complaint claims that serious dereliction of duties began in earnest following the July 2004 incident in which inmate Scott Miller took 27-year-old counselor Cassandra Arnold hostage and raped her repeatedly. In the wake of the incident, an executive task force was created by then Gov. Minner consisting of former judges Grover Brown and Vincent Bifferato Sr. The complaint says that the task force’s results were highly critical of the state’s prison system and called for sweeping reforms that included addressing severe understaffing, misuse of overtime and inadequate training.

“But did Minner follow this disinterested advice?” Mr. Neuberger asked hypothetically during the press conference. “No. She just passed it on to her successor Gov. Markell and guess what he did? Under his watch, there still weren’t enough officers and the overtime budget rose from $8 million to $20 million.”

The complaint claims that both administrations were repeatedly given warnings from a variety of sources including task forces, security experts, a deluge of media reports and the Correctional Officer Association of Delaware staff. All of which were allegedly ignored. The report even points to time during the Minner administration when the COAD tried to draw attention to issues by renting billboards throughout the state and running slogans on them such as: “Delaware Corrections, where minimum staffing would be an increase.” and “Welcome to Sussex County. For your safety, obey the law. We cannot staff our prisons.”

Renewed calls for change

Mr. Nueberger expressed his faith that the ongoing State Police investigation into the uprising will bring those responsible to justice. He also noted that Gov. Carney’s independent review headed up by former judges Henry duPont Ridgely and William L. Chapman Jr. will likely be well executed. However, he fears that results may be ignored again.

“I have absolutely no hope for the independent investigation,” he said. “I think the two distinguished judges will do a good job, but they will just conclude that the prisons are understaffed and we expect that the governor will ignore it.”

Correctional officers appear to be signaling their recent disappointment as well. According to the Associated Press, a corrections officer familiar with the situation said about 200 corrections officers called out sick on Monday to protest. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation is a sensitive collective bargaining matter.

Seeming to acknowledge an issue, Ms. Gravell said the “vast majority” of correctional officers showed up to work on Monday.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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