Officials, advocates respond to prison riot indictments

Correction Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Among the public responses this paper saw when it posted news on Tuesday of the inmates charged with Lt. Steven Floyd’s murder, the common refrain was “finally!”

Eight and a half months after the Feb. 1 riot at the James. T Vaughn Correctional Center (JTVCC) that left Lt. Floyd dead, charges have been announced by the Delaware Department of Justice.

Sixteen inmates were charged with three counts first-degree murder, and two others were charged with kidnapping, rioting and second-degree conspiracy.

Despite the duration of the Delaware State Police-run investigation, the Delaware Department of Correction (DOC) is thankful for the amount of effort put forth.

“The DOC is grateful for the tireless and challenging work performed by the state police and Department of Justice,” said DOC Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead. “We will support the criminal justice process as it moves forward and are hopeful justice will be brought to the Floyd family and the victims of February 1 and 2.”

Taking a similar tack, Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) president Geoff Klopp said the amount of time the investigation took was well in proportion to its difficulty level.

“The investigation was extremely thorough — and I know it was very difficult,” he said. “The time frame of it was so long because of that difficulty, but we have confidence that the state police managed the investigation capably.”

Gov. John Carney, who had expressed disappointment in June about the speed at which the investigation was progressing, was also pleased to see charges filed.

“It is my hope that the indictments announced on Tuesday will be a step toward justice for Lt. Floyd and provide some measure of peace for his family, and all of the victims of the events on February 1 and February 2,” said Gov. Carney. “As we have said since February, we will remain focused on taking action necessary to improve safety and security inside JTVCC, and across Delaware’s correctional facilities.”

Lawyers respond

Survivors of the uprising filed a lawsuit against the state and several of its officials seeking compensatory and punitive damages in April.

Lt. Floyd’s widow and children and the five other officers who were held hostage during the uprising are being represented by Wilmington lawyers Thomas Neuberger and Tom Crumplar.

Mr. Neuberger says his clients are pleased to see charges issued.

“Our clients are pleased that these murderers and kidnappers have been charged, and note that so many are repeat killers,” he said. “The torture of Lt. Floyd was horrible and beyond imagining. Justice needs to be done here.”

The surviving victims of the Feb. 1 uprising are haunted every day by the ordeal they lived through, added Mr. Neuberger.

“Medical care is ongoing for all the surviving hostages and they are worse off today than in February,” he 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 a result, none are able to continue their careers with the Department of Correction.”

In March, Lt. Floyd’s family made a “plea for justice” with Mr. Neuberger’s assistance and called upon the state to release the Lt.’s full autopsy report. Shortly after the riot was quelled, the state police said their preliminary autopsy revealed “homicide by trauma.” Beyond that description, nothing has been made public since.

“Was he slowly tortured, was he quickly executed, did he bleed out over a long time, did he suffer greatly or pass early, was his body mutilated?” Mr. Neuberger said in March. “One would think that someone in the state could have thought privately to help bring closure to Lt. Floyd’s widow, his three adult children, and his many other relatives. To force them, months from now, when an autopsy is finally made public, to rip their wounds open again is cruel and inhumane.”

Mr. Neuberger declined to comment on whether or not the full autopsy has been released privately to the family since March.

In September, the governor-ordered independent review of the conditions that led to the incident noted that Lt. Floyd had requested the transfer of “over five” inmates from C-Building — the site of the uprising — a mere 11 days before it happened. The authors of the report, former Family Court judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III, said if Lt. Floyd’s request had “been taken more seriously and carried out, the incident and the resulting death may not have occurred.”

Mr. Neuberger declined to comment on whether any of the indicted inmates were named on Lt. Floyd’s request.

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill from the Office of Defense Services said their office is in the process of providing lawyers for each inmate charged in the indictments.

“The Office of Defense Services is committed to providing each and every client with competent, conflict-free legal representation,” said Mr. O’Neill. “Under our system of justice each of these persons is presumed innocent and the lawyers in the Office of Defense Services will do their utmost to protect the constitutional rights of their clients.”

Dover attorney Stephen Hampton, of the law firm Grady & Hampton, LLC, said back in June that he’d been contacted by more than 230 inmates through letters or family members since the Feb. 1 inmate uprising.

He said complaints of physical/verbal abuse, reduced food portions, destroyed property, inadequate health care and ignored grievances abounded in the wake of the JTVCC incident. Many inmates were requesting a class action lawsuit be filed on their behalf.

Seeming to confirm the presence of alleged mistreatment, Mr. Hampton has pointed to Gov. Carney’s independent review.

The report stated: “The Independent Review Team received inmate-based complaints during interviews of inmates, advocates and attorneys. Inmate concerns expressed to external organizations included inconsistent discipline, lack of programming and medical care, a grievance process that most see as meaningless, the use of shaming tactics and the harassment of inmates by damaging or destroying their property under the guise of security searches and facility shakedowns.”

As of Tuesday, Mr. Hampton said that some of the poor prison conditions have “eased up.” But he still describes conditions as “abysmal.”

“The medical care remains abysmal and the food is always cold,” he said. “Even if 18 inmates were involved in the riot, there are probably 150 or more who suffered criminal abuse and had nothing to do with it. Now they get to see correctional officers who abused them on duty without any discipline. Does the DOC expect that these inmates will ever trust any DOC official or want to cooperate with them?”

Mr. Hampton said he does not handle “criminal” cases, so he’s unlikely to represent any of the recently charged inmates. However, he says he’ll likely be moving ahead with other claims stemming from “mistreatment” in the wake of the Feb. 1 incident.

“I am moving forward on civil claims for a large number of inmates, but this involves thousands of pages of documentation and I have not filed anything yet,” he said.

Officials, advocates respond

State Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, described the indictments as “welcome news” though he too points out that specifics on how Lt. Floyd died weren’t disclosed.

“The inmates have told authorities of abuse by correctional officers and lack of access to healthcare, but none of that justifies taking the life of Lt. Floyd,” he said.

While the incident sparked debate throughout the state on instituting prison reforms, Sen. Ennis, chairman of the senate’s Corrections & Public Safety committee, said plenty of work remains.

“I think the process is not as fast moving as some would like but there are definitely reforms being made,” Sen. Ennis said. “Everyone wants things done yesterday and this is a very complex matter that will take time to fully address.”

The COAD are also among those waiting to see an autopsy report.

“We look forward to the release of the autopsy report on the body of Lt. Floyd, but we’ve been given no indication when, or if, that’s coming,” said Mr. Klopp.

At the very least, Mr. Klopp said that Lt. Floyd’s fellow correctional officers are anxious to see justice done on his behalf.

Although the COAD has worked with the Governor and DOC administration to see through several reforms to the state’s prison system and policy since the incident, Mr. Klopp has often been critical of the results.

Gov. Carney increased correctional officer starting salaries to $40,000 this financial year and structured another increase to $43,000 the following year. The administration hopes that this measure will draw more qualified applicants to the critically understaffed position — the DOC reported over 260 vacancies in September. Over $2 million in cameras and equipment was also earmarked for the DOC. Mr. Klopp has said that while the reforms are steps in the right direction, they fall short of addressing systemic, dangerous deficiencies. A few weeks after the Feb. 1 uprising, Mr. Klopp reserved particular ire for the DOC’s response to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit that he has said directly contributed to Lt. Floyd’s murder.
To be in compliance with an ACLU agreement adopted by the DOC in 2016, Mr. Klopp said inmates known for being violent were “down flowed” from maximum security buildings to make room for inmates with special mental health needs. The lower security buildings they were being “flowed” into included C-Building, he said.

At the time, the DOC flatly denied his claim.

“Inmates are housed based on their classification score, which is derived from an objective tool that examines factors to include prior criminal history, institutional behavior, age and severity of crime,” Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the DOC said at the time. “The ACLU agreement does not dictate housing — it only addresses the amounts of recreation and treatment offered to individuals in the areas identified as restrictive housing.”

Persisting, Mr. Klopp noted that inmates from building 21, previously a maximum security building, were “flowed down” to make room for the new mental health building which was being established to comply with the ACLU agreement.

The ACLU agreement in question was the result of a lawsuit filed on the behalf of Community Legal Aid Society Inc. According to the ACLU’s website, Community Legal Aid Society had claimed that at least 100 prisoners with mental illness were being held in solitary confinement by the DOC under conditions known to worsen symptoms of mental illness such as paranoia, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts. On Sept. 6 2016, the ACLU announced that a settlement between the DOC and Community Legal Aid Society had been reached and subsequently approved.

Responding to the accusation at the time, the ACLU issued a statement calling the COAD’s claims “false” and “troubling.”

As of Tuesday, Mr. Klopp remains convinced that the “down flowing” of inmates resulting from the agreement was a “direct factor” in the lead up to the incident.

Lori Alberts says she’s just praying for all involved. Ms. Alberts is the chairman of Link of Love — a support group for inmates’ families. She claims that the responsibility for the uprising is a shared one.

“While our hearts still go out to Floyd’s family, many of our loved ones have been suffering for the last nine months too and they were not even involved,” she said. “I hope that with all that has happened, those responsible will be held accountable. I also hope the DOC takes their blame and the public sees past these 16 individuals and looks at the real reason this happened. The environment inside a correctional center needs to be one of corrections and rehabilitation not punishment and warehousing.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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