Experts to study prison health care after riot

Department of Correction car parked at the gate at James T. Vaughn in Smyrna. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — State officials are hiring independent experts to review inmate access to health care and the prisoner grievance system in the wake of a deadly inmate riot and hostage taking last year at Delaware’s maximum-security prison.

The outside reviews are in response to recommendations contained in an independent review of the February 2017 uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, during which correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed.

Officials plan to release an interim report Thursday documenting their progress in implementing the 41 recommendations contained in the independent review ordered by Democratic Gov. John Carney.

“We didn’t want these two things to get lost in the full report, to be honest with you. They’re so important,” said Claire DeMatteis, an attorney and former senior counsel to Democrat Joe Biden when he was one of Delaware’s U.S. senators. Carney appointed DeMatteis to oversee the state’s response to the independent review.

While there are no direct ties linking problems with the health care system or grievance process to the riot, officials note that they have been the subject of inmate complaints and lawsuits, for years.

“When we meet with community leaders, we repeatedly hear about these two issues,” DeMatteis told The Associated Press this week.

The Rev. Christopher Bullock, chairman of the Delaware Coalition for Prison Reform and Justice, welcomed the state’s move.

“The outside experts, being independent, I’m hopeful that they will be truth-tellers and provide a path toward solutions,” Bullock said, adding that it will take time to implement needed reforms.

“It’s a marathon, not a wind sprint,” he said.

DeMatteis said the state has contracted with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to review how officials at Vaughn respond to “sick call” slips submitted by inmates. Inmates have alleged guards often ignore requests for medical care. Reviewers will examine the process and track data to determine how, when and whether inmates receive care, DeMatteis said. An initial assessment is expected to take three to four months.

Meanwhile, officials are seeking proposals from outside organizations with experience in criminal justice issues to review the inmate grievance system at Vaughn. Proposals are due by Feb. 8, and officials expect to award a contract by April. The contractor will attend grievance hearings, meet with inmates, and review past complaints to determine whether prisoners’ claims of being treated unfairly are being adequately addressed. A preliminary report would be expected after six months.

Inmates have repeatedly complained that the grievance process is stacked against them because Department of Correction staff control committees that hear grievances. In the past, grievance committees included an independent ombudsman, but that position was eliminated years ago, probably for budget reasons, DeMatteis said.

“This grievance process is a real concern,” said Bullock, who favors the restitution of an independent voice to grievance committees.

DeMatteis said outside experts won’t be needed to address any of the other recommendations from the review team.

“Overall, the public should be encouraged by the level of activity to address the recommendations that the independent review team identified that led to the Feb. 1-2 prison siege,” she said.

DeMatteis said the review identified two causes of the uprising: a failure of communication and a failure of intelligence sharing. Officials have said the riot was preceded by inmate protests and by warnings from Floyd that some inmates identified as troublemakers should be removed from the building where the riot subsequently broke out. Prison administrators failed to act.

“We had the intelligence, and we didn’t share it properly, and we didn’t communicate it properly,” DeMatteis said. “That has to be, and is being, corrected.”

DeMatteis praised the new warden at Vaughn, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dana Metzger, for improving communications among staff and working to improve conditions for inmates.

“He’s a different leader,” she said. “More open, more communicative.”

Metzger’s predecessor, David Pierce, was reassigned to a community corrections post after the riot.

Some inmates, while welcoming Metzger’s reform efforts, are concerned he doesn’t have the support he needs, particularly from rank-and-file correctional officers.

“They call our warden ‘the inmates’ warden,’” Robert Adger told The Associated Press in a prison interview last month. “The COs hate his guts. They walk around talking filthy about him all day long because Metzger actually wants to help us.”

DeMatteis said Metzger has the full support of the corrections department leadership, and he is earning the support of employees “day by day.”

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