Legislative oversight panels want DOC’s internal affairs report on prison riot

SMYRNA — Friday marked the second year anniversary of the deadly James T. Vaughn Correctional Center riot.

On the morning of Feb. 1 2017, a masked group of inmates took control of C Building in the compound, held its inhabitants hostage and barricaded the entries.

About 19 hours later the building was retaken by force, but during the riot, correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd was murdered and other hostages badly beaten or otherwise traumatized.

In the wake of the incident, three separate investigations were initiated to find out why it happened and who was responsible: The Delaware State Police criminal investigation, an Independent Review ordered by Gov. John Carney, and the Department of Corrections internal affairs investigation.

The governor’s independent review wrapped up the following September and provided a long list of proposed prison reforms.

The criminal investigation resulted in charges against 18 inmates for perpetrating the riot but much less was heard about the internal affairs investigation. Though no official announcement was made about its completion, DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said in an interview last November that it was completed. When asked if there were any plans to share it with the governor or legislators, he said: “It’s been shared with me.”

However, it appears both the House and Senate committees responsible for overseeing the DOC will request a report on the investigation.

“Both as the chair of the committee and as a citizen, I want the opportunity to talk to the corrections officials and administrators to be briefed on the results of that audit so we can hopefully gain a fuller understanding of what happened,” Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, the new chairperson of the House Corrections Committee, said on Thursday. “We need to make sure that Feb. 1, 2017 never, ever, happens again,” she said.

Her counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Bruce Ennis (D), noted that the Senate Corrections & Public Safety committee has an interest in reviewing the investigation results for the same reason.

“We had a joint meeting last year and hit on that issue, but at the time they said they were working on the investigation and it wasn’t finished,” Sen. Ennis said. “I know the investigation was supposed to deal strictly with the issue of the death and the riot, so we’ll try to plan another joint meeting and see if we can get some answers.”

According to spokesman Jonathan Starkey, Gov. Carney has reviewed the investigation results.

“Gov. Carney read the report and has been in regular communication with Commissioner Phelps regarding its findings,” Mr. Starkey said. “Commissioner Phelps has continued to work with Claire DeMatteis (governor appointed special assistant to DOC) as needed to continue the Department’s focus on the recommendations of the Independent Review and to address the IA report. The Governor and the Commissioner speak regularly regarding the Department’s work in this area.”

When asked if the governor was satisfied that potential DOC administrative failings in the lead up to the riot had been adequately dealt with, Mr. Starkey deferred to a list of reforms made since the riot.

“Throughout this process, the governor has believed that public accountability is important,” he said. “That’s why we engaged with the Independent Review team to report publicly on the challenges inside our correctional facilities and to report publicly on recommendations for addressing them.

Perry Phelps

“That’s also why we publicly reported on the work of the governor’s special assistant, Claire DeMatteis, who was charged by the governor with assisting the Commissioner in implementing the recommendations of the Independent Review. Those reports have created a significant public record of the challenges we face, and the state’s work to address those challenges.

“As the governor has said since February 2017, these are long-term challenges that will require a long-term effort. There is no quick fix. But the governor is committed to this work, and to making all appropriate changes that will improve safety and security inside of Delaware’s correctional facilities.”

Who’s accountable?

Of the 18 inmates charged with perpetrating the riot, two pleaded guilty — one later killing himself in his cell after entering the plea last November.

Three stood trial late last year, only one of whom picked up a murder conviction. One was convicted on lesser charges and the other was acquitted. Four more are currently standing trial in the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington and the remaining nine are scheduled for court dates up through May.

On the administrative side, the accountability is much less clear. Over the past two years stakeholders have raised substantial questions about the management of Vaughn prison in the lead up to, during and after the riot.

Clearly feeling there was fault, survivors of the riot, including Lt. Floyd’s family and estate, sued the state and several of its officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Filed in April 2017, the suit’s complaint rests on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long ignored staffing issues within the DOC.

Defendants included former 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.

At least four of the defendants still work for the state.

Among many accusations, the lawsuit alleged that the administrations of former Gov. Markell and Minner 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.

The suit never went to trial and was settled out of court in December for $7.55 million — thought to be the largest state-paid settlement in Delaware’s history. Still, the defendants maintain that the plaintiffs’ claim “lacked legal merit.”

Nevertheless, Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD), claims prison leadership was well aware of the dangers lurking over C Building and did not act soon enough to protect staff. Also, when it came time to hold leadership accountable for its failures, he agrees that issues were purposely obfuscated.

“It was known by many supervisors at Vaughn that something was going to happen up to four month prior to Lt. Floyd being murdered — there’s documentation in the form of emails, reports and memos going all the way back to September 2016 that sounded the warning,” Mr. Klopp said. “What the COAD doesn’t understand is how so many supervisors could have been aware of the situation, but only a single person — Jeff Carrothers — took the blame and was disciplined.”

Mr. Carrothers, Vaughn’s security superintendent at the time of the riot, was fired from the DOC in October 2017. According to him, he was first reassigned to work in the DOC’s Dover headquarters a few weeks after the Feb. 1 incident. He noted that he felt targeted because he was never interviewed about the incident.

“I was never even interviewed by the Governor’s Independent Review team when they were looking into the causes,” he told this paper last year. “No one from the Delaware State Police talked to me during their investigation either.”

Mr. Carrothers said he’s suspicious about his termination because, to his knowledge, he was the only employee ever fired in connection with the Feb. 1 incident — despite having several superiors responsible for security. Also, several subordinates, even more closely responsible for security at C Building were subsequently promoted, he claimed.

At least in one notable case, Mr. Carrothers has been proven correct. Lt. Charles Sennett, a supervising officer directly responsible for the security of C Building appears to have been promoted to Staff Lieutenant since the riot and still severs in the same role at the prison. This was made clear during his testimony in the ongoing inmate criminal trials when prosecutors asked what his occupation was on the day of the riot versus his current occupation. Further, Lt. Sennett admitted to being on the receiving end of an email sent by Lt. Floyd before the riot.

Much was made of these emails in the Independent Review of the incident. Allegedly, Lt. Floyd himself alerted leadership to the growing dangers in C Building and asked for certain problem inmates to be moved.

The Independent Review team went as far as saying that Lt. Floyd may still be alive if his warnings were taken more seriously.

“Most unfortunately, the Independent Review team believes that had the request for the removal of certain inmates from the C Building made on Jan. 20 by the very correctional officer who was killed during the incident that began on Feb. 1, been taken more seriously and carried out, the incident and the resulting death may not have occurred,” the review states.

As for senior leadership in the prison, both Vaughn Warden David Pierce and Bureau of Prisons chief Christopher Klein were reassigned after the incident.

Mr. Pierce, retaining the merit title of Warden V at a salary of $109,595.64, was reassigned to the Bureau of Community Corrections 20 days after the riot.

The Independent Review team was also critical about Mr. Pierce’s performance in the lead-up to the riot. The report noted that some Vaughn staff members believed Mr. Pierce’s policies put officers at risk and restricted their ability to effectively do their job.

Specifically, a memo released by the warden briefing staff on the implementation of new rules was cited. At the time the memo was circulated, the prison was adopting the terms of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Community Legal Aid Society (CLASI) in late 2016, the review team said. The warden’s memo noted that certain inmate privileges could not be revoked and that, during recreation, inmates could not be told to “lock in” because they violated a rule.

The review team believed Mr. Pierce wanted the new policies to fail.

“The impression of the Independent Review team is that the memo was a passive aggressive attempt to force the implementation of the CLASI agreement to fail,” the report states.

Additionally, the lawsuit brought against the state by survivors alleged that Gov. Carney violated DOC policy during the siege by restricting Mr. Pierce from making a rescue attempt sooner.

The DOC policy manual states that the warden of a given prison is to become the “ultimate commander” in the event of a major emergency and remains in charge until the situation is resolved.

The now-settled complaint claimed that Mr. Pierce had approved a prison emergency response team to retake C Building 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 said.

Gov. Carney has publicly denied that claim.

In mid-May of 2017, Mr. Klein, chief of the Bureau of Prisons, accepted a new job as deputy principal assistant at the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security — led by Robert Coupe, his former boss at the DOC. As bureau chief under both Mr. Coupe and current DOC commissioner Perry Phelps, Mr. Klein oversaw Delaware’s four prisons, including James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

Because “personnel information is private” the DOC refuses to discuss circumstances around terminations and reassignments.

Mr. Klopp says the questions about what actually happened procedurally before and during the riot are too big to be left unanswered.

“At the end of the day, this all looks like an effort to cover things up and silence the people who actually know what really happened so the public and correctional officers themselves never find out the truth,” he said.

“Even more is coming to light in the ongoing inmate trials — we now know from Lt. Floyd’s autopsy that he would probably have lived if the building had been retaken sooner. The COAD still has questions about policy being broken during the riot response.

“Realistically, I don’t care if we get to see the internal affairs investigation ourselves, but I think it’s imperative that legislators get the full scope of what happened prior to Lt. Floyd being murdered.”

Inmate’s lawsuit

Also in line to review the internal affairs investigation is Stephen Hampton, a Dover attorney representing the more than 100 inmates housed in C Building during the riot. An 80-page complaint he filed late last year alleges “inhumane conditions” at Vaughn, and states that for many years prior to the riot prison personnel “illegally abused, mistreated and tortured inmates with virtually nothing being done by their JTVCC (Vaughn prison) or DOC supervisors, to stop them.”

If the inmates’ lawsuit goes ahead, he’ll have a chance to review the report, he says.

“Internal affairs reports do not normally get reported to anyone else outside the DOC,” Mr. Hampton said last week. “The only way I have gotten to see them in the past is in discovery after I’ve filed suit in a case. If they exist for the revolt and correctional officer actions after it, I expect to get a copy of them in discovery.”

Mr. Hampton also believes DOC policy was broken during the riot.

“My observation has been that the wardens of the various Delaware prisons are considered the highest authority in each prison, and the commissioners generally liked having the warden handle the problems in their prison,” he said.

“The majority of warden decisions are never reviewed by the commissioner, giving the commissioner deniability if a decision turns out bad. Thus it was against DOC practice and protocol when Warden Pierce was overruled at the beginning of the revolt, and not permitted to put a quick end to it.

“That decision turned out bad, and I expect to find out who made the decision during discovery.”

Both the DOC and the Governor’s Office have refused to comment on Mr. Hampton’s accusations because they’re part of ongoing litigation.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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