Inmate: Prison uprising began as ‘peaceful protest plan

WILMINGTON — Described as a “star witness against me” by one defendant Friday afternoon, an inmate testified about the days and hours before the deadly building takeover last year at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Shortly before the insurrection on Feb. 1, 2017, according to Royal Downs, word was spreading of a possible prisoner revolt. Downs claimed he attempted to notify correctional officers with an anonymous note. He also spoke directly to Lt. Steven Floyd, who was later found dead after the 18-hour standoff.

“I said to him, ‘You know it’s going down,” Downs testified. “He said, ‘I know,’ looked at me and shook his head.”

According to the longtime inmate who later pleaded guilty to a riot charge in the takeover, prisoners planned to overpower officers in C Building and start a protest about the “conditions, respect, and treatment level at the institution.”

According to Mr. Downs, “there was no talk of harming anyone.”

Downs claimed he was against the plan, thinking that prison staff would respond with physical force that would soon overwhelm the inmates. He was for protesting by inmates instead refusing to leave their cells.

Lt. Steven Floyd

Lt. Floyd died during the siege, and 16 inmates were charged with first-degree murder. The trial for the first group of four — Roman Shankaras, Dwayne Staats, Jarreau Ayers and Deric Forney — began Monday. Kidnapping, conspiracy and riot counts were also part of the indictments.

Prior to the riot, Downs said he had conversations with Shankaras, Staats and Ayers about planning an uprising. A peaceful protest was initially discussed, but Downs said it turned into something else.

“There wasn’t no discussion of taking over the building or nothing like that,” he said of early talks.

As word began to circulate among inmates, Downs said he believed prison administration also likely learned of some sort of potential demonstration or incident upcoming.

“I believe everybody knew it was going to get back to the police,” he said.

The trial resumes Monday at 10 a.m. with Downs scheduled to re-take the witness stand.
The prosecution said it was expected that testimony and cross examination would likely take most of the day. Also upcoming next week are correctional officer witnesses, DNA and fingerprint analysts and inmates possibly all by Wednesday, according to Deputy Attorney General John Downs.

Friday began with inmate Anthony Morrow recounting his version of the takeover’s early moments and hours, including the assault of two correctional officers, including Floyd. Morrow was making a phone call to his fiancée’ in the building’s barber shop when he heard loud noises, he testified.

Prosecutors played audio of the phone call as Morrow described seeing several men that he could not identify and Lt. Floyd on the ground with his hands up in front of him attempting to defend himself while apparently being stabbed repeatedly based on the large amount of blood seen. The inmate said he never saw any weapons.

As far as identifying specific participants, Morrow testified, “I didn’t make distinction on who was who. It was chaos.”

Later, Morrow said he was forced by men wearing “makeshift masks” to call a media outlet and read a statement.

“A guy started cussing me out for not reading fast enough, but it was barely legible,” he said.

Correctional Officer Brett Smith, who was the early negotiator with the inmates, said Orlando Downs was the primary voice for their concerns and demands in the first few hours. He also claimed to hear Ayers’ voice at some point.

Officer Smith aimed to speak with Lt. Floyd since he was the senior officer in the building but was unaware of his condition. He also hoped to hear from any available staff if possible.

According to Officer Smith, prisoners were making demands for new educational plans, visitation courses, new classification system of inmates, professionalism courses for correctional officers and more budget transparency.


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