Known costs of prison riot top $30 million and growing

 

A view of the Vaughn correctional center. Since the riot an agreement was struck to increase correctional officers’ starting salaries up to $40,000. Pay is structured to increase again to $43,000 at the start of fiscal year 2019. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — The immediate costs of the deadly inmate uprising at Vaughn prison last Feb. 1 were obvious: correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd was murdered and six other hostages were gravely injured or otherwise traumatized.

The extent of the injuries to the survivors was indicated by Wilmington attorney Thomas Neuberger, who represented them and Lt. Floyd’s family in a lawsuit against the state.

“Medical care is ongoing for all the surviving hostages and they are worse off today than in February,” he has said.

“Their lives will forever be changed. Their injuries are permanent, and include: chronic post traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, major depression, concussions, short and long term memory loss, nightmares, flashbacks, angry outbursts, social isolation and survivor’s guilt.”

As for Lt. Floyd, the only official information ever released to the public was when the Delaware Division of Forensic Science ruled his death a “homicide by trauma.”

The availability of details was a bone of contention between Lt. Floyd’s widow and Gov. John Carney last March, when she issued a letter through Mr. Neuberger’s office demanding to be given more information.

“Just reply privately or publicly to my demand for the release of the autopsy of my husband,” she said in her statement. “How did he die? Did he suffer greatly, or did he pass quickly? Was he tortured? Was he stabbed 100 times, as we have heard? Did he die in a great pool of blood, as is rumored?

“Please end our suffering and help us move on. Overrule the state’s many lawyers and address our suffering. Respect the memory of my dear husband and my family that much.”

Although the autopsy was never released to the public, several recent comments suggest that the murder of Lt. Floyd was grisly.

Speaking at a New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association rally last month, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp said:

“Approximately a year ago, Lt. Floyd was brutally murdered, practically decapitated, his body was treated in a way that I’m not even comfortable letting you know what happened to him on that day.”

In a Jan. 13 letter to the editor advocating for the reinstatement of the death penalty in Delaware, Mr. Neuberger said:

“I know that he (Lt. Floyd) was brutally tortured for over 16 hours in ways which defy imagining.”

Financial costs

Ghastly as the costs to life and limb that the Feb. 1 riot seem to be, the monetary costs to the state have also been grave. The exact financial cost to Delaware’s taxpayers has been elusive, but is, certainly, growing.

The most clearly enumerated expenses so far are the recent $7.55 million settlement of the lawsuit brought against the state by Lt. Floyd’s family and survivors of the incident and the alleged $21.6 million “historic investment” in the Department of Correction in the wake of the February 2017 prison seige touted by Gov. Carney.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director of policy and external affairs Bert Scoglietti confirmed in early January that the actual state payout to settle the lawsuit will be larger than $7.55 million — and that amount already is thought to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware’s 230-year history.

As part of the settlement terms, the state agreed to pay several survivors’ limited future salaries and medical bills not included in the payout sum.

Lt. Floyd’s widow will continue to receive her health benefits, a survivor’s pension and a “line of duty death benefit” — between $150,000 to $200,000 depending on when she filed a claim.

Emptied state legal fund?

“I don’t have an estimate yet what the total cost to the state will be,” Mr. Scoglietti said in January.

Although unconfirmed by the OMB, the settlement appears to have more than emptied the state’s entire legal contingency fund.

When the state loses a civil suit or settles a case, it pays the plaintiff(s) out of a fund specifically used for lawsuits involving state agencies and outside legal counsel. The state’s legal contingency fund is financed annually through the budget process.

When the state settled the Vaughn lawsuit, Mr. Scoglietti said the money would be drawn from two separate funds: “$5.1 million will come from the workers compensation fund for state employees,” he said. “The remaining $2.45 million will be paid from current and prior year funds which are in the OMB legal contingency fund.”

In late December before the $2.45 million was drawn, Mr. Scoglietti noted that the balance in the contingency fund was just over $2,069,474. That payout would hypothetically leave the fund with a balance of negative $450,000. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed earlier in 2017, the OMB noted that the legal contingency fund had about $4.2 million in it at the start of FY2018, which began July 1, 2017.

The OMB has ignored repeated questions about whether the account is now empty. Mr. Scoglietti has only said that the OMB has the ability to move money into the account mid-financial year from other accounts when needed.

“In general, the OMB director and controller general have the authority to transfer surplus funds as necessary during the course of a fiscal year to address deficits, should they arise,” he said this month.

Gov. Carney’s recently released budget recommends $1.07 million for legal fees in FY2019, which begins July 1.

DOC emergency investments

Since the February prison incident, an agreement was struck to increase correctional officer starting salaries up to $40,000 at the beginning of last financial year. Pay is structured to increase again to $43,000 at the start of FY2019. The hope behind the pay bump is to address the DOC’s critical level of understaffing and bloated overtime budget, attracting personnel to fill jobs if starting salaries are higher.

The governor’s office said that the increase in salaries added up to a $16 million investment. Combined with an additional $2.3 million to authorize 50 more correctional officers at Vaughn and 25 more at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution, $2 million for new cameras at Vaughn and $1.3 million for safety equipment, the administration claims to have invested $21.6 million in the DOC over FY2018.

The OMB confirmed that the cost of the governor-ordered Independent Review of the incident was $161,295. The review, conducted by former Family Court Judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III, produced a 159-page report with 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s “systemic” ills.

Unknown expenses

The Feb. 1 incident inflicted costs on several state agencies to provide an emergency response, perform investigations and pay for the state’s legal fees.

Delaware State Police (DSP) provided an emergency response to the initial incident, which lasted roughly 19 hours, and a subsequent criminal investigation that charged 18 inmates with perpetrating the riot. The protracted investigation took nearly eight months to produce those indictments, but still maintains an “ongoing” status.

This newspaper recently filed a FOIA in an attempt to determine the costs of DSP’s response to the incident and criminal investigation. The Department of Safety and Homeland Security FOIA Coordinator, Wendy Hudson, said a response to the inquiry would take up to 60 business days because the “potentially voluminous records” may be in storage and will need to be pulled and reviewed.

Last June, Gov. Carney appointed Claire DeMatteis as a special assistant to the DOC charged specifically with spearheading the prison reforms recommended by the Independent Review team. It’s unclear what the total costs of her work has been to date, but the governor’s office confirmed in October that her pay rate was $59 per hour.

The defendants of the Vaughn lawsuit, including former Delaware governors Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, along with DOC commissioner Perry Phelps and three former commissioners, and state budget director Michael Jackson and his predecessors, were provided with outside legal counsel by the state.

Upcoming costs

Although the upcoming costs are the most uncertain, they will likely be considerable — namely, the expense associated with prosecuting the 18 inmates charged in the February riot and providing for their defense.

Delaware’s lead public defense attorney expects “hundreds, if not thousands of hours” will be spent representing the inmates.

In addition to attorney fees set at $90 per hour, the state will pay for other defense needs such as investigators and forensic experts, among other costs and rates to be determined.

“These expenses add up,” Public Defender’s Office Chief Brendan O’Neill said. “They are paid with public funds.”

According to Mr. O’Neill, “there is no case in recent memory” that included so many first-degree murder charges in a single indictment.

The Office of Defense Services (ODS) briefed the Joint Finance Committee during a hearing last week on its expected future expenses.

“We do not know what the exact cost to represent all of the defendants will be, but we do know it will be expensive,” Mr. O’Neill said. “We are asking the state to provide us with an additional $600,000, on top of the contractual line for conflict attorneys included in the governor’s recommended budget, to cover not just the projected costs associated with the Vaughn case, but other multi-defendant cases as well.”

The governor’s recently announced budget calls for allocating $24.8 million to the office, an increase of $1.6 million from the current year.

“Worst-case scenario? The level of representation is deemed to be insignificant and we end up having to do them over again,” Mr. O’Neill told the budget-review committee this week.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) enlisted approximately three prosecutors and “a handful of paralegals and administrative staff” to investigate the Vaughn matter and bring an indictment, spokeswoman Nicole Magnusson has said.

The DOJ said it handled several cases with large numbers of defendants in recent years stemming from gangs or criminal enterprises, some involving multiple murder charges. Ms. Magnusson said that the prosecution isn’t beyond the DOJ’s ordinary operating scope.

“The prosecution of defendants associated with the death of Lt. Floyd is being handled by DOJ attorneys and staff as part of their job responsibilities, so there is no quantifiable added costs per case for staff time,” she said.

In the DOC’s effort to continue addressing its “systemic” ills, the agency is expected to seek a significant increase in its annual budget. Ms. DeMatteis noted in October that while investments secured by Gov. Carney mid-year helped get work started on the Independent Review suggestions, more will be needed.

“We’ll be needing to ask the General Assembly for some additional funding for projects,” she said at the time.

The DOC indicated in November that it’d be seeking an increase of 8 percent in its budget for the next fiscal year to be used in large part to fund pay raises and add new positions. The request would grow that agency’s General Fund allocation from $308.1 million to $333.5 million. Gov. Carney’s FY2019 budget suggests allocating $328.6 million to the DOC. Correction leaders are expected to brief the Joint Finance Committee on their specific needs on Tuesday.

Craig Anderson and Matt Bittle contributed to this report.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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