‘Fertile ground for chaos’: Problems at Vaughn prison played role in uprising, report says

Full Independent Review Initial Report

DOVER — A preliminary report on the Feb. 1 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center says conditions at the prison greatly harmed morale among correctional officers and likely contributed to the incident.

The report, delivered to Gov. John Carney Thursday and publicly released Friday, criticizes management and points to a variety of factors that created angst among correctional officers and inmates at Delaware’s largest prison.

Regular personnel and senior officials often do not see eye-to-eye, and officers feel underpaid and overworked, according to the findings.

Minor mistakes such as “errors in classification calculations, failures to follow procedures and/or mistakes made by fatigued and inexperienced staff … were exacerbated by perceived injustices, grievances, overcrowded and/or poorly maintained facilities, a lack of programming and work opportunities, inappropriate staff-inmate interactions and the inconsistent application of policies and procedures by corrections staff.”

The uprising, which lasted about 19 hours and resulted in the death of Lt. Steven Floyd, is still being investigated by Delaware State Police. There is no timetable for charges being filed.

The 54-page report was developed by former Judge William Chapman and ex-Justice Henry DuPont Ridgely, who later stepped down due to a potential conflict of interest and was replaced by Charles Oberly, the former U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware.

The report was ordered by Gov. Carney in February, and a final version is due in August.

The initial findings do not examine the events of Feb. 1 but instead look at the conditions leading up to it and offer recommendations as to what can be done to reform the Department of Correction and prevent another incident.

Many of the recommendations are not new but echo things advocates for both correctional officers and inmates have said for years. They also stem from findings put together after a 2004 incident in which Vaughn inmate Scott Miller took a counselor hostage and raped her before being shot and killed.

“The long-standing issues within the facility, if left unattended, will continue provide fertile ground for chaos and violence in the facility,” Friday’s report says.

The team working on the review did not have access to details from the police investigation, meaning additional information about what caused the rebellion may not be present in the findings.

Communication

Dialogue between many staffers in the facility, the report finds, was especially poor.

“During interviews with Delaware Department of Correction’s leadership, staff, stakeholders and inmates, it became clear that there is no unifying sense of purpose or approach to the management of the JTVCC,” the report notes. “Line officers were most concerned with only trying to get through the day safely so that they could get home at the end of their shift.

“Not one officer could provide a consistent response when asked what was expected of them as an employee of the DOC. Supervisors also described inconsistency in how they supervised staff at the JTVCC, as well as inconsistency throughout the organization. Inmates expressed frustration with the shifting interpretations of rules and policies, as well as enforcement of those rules and policies by some staff.

“Nearly everyone with whom the Independent Review Team spoke complained about poor communication regarding policies, operational changes, and day-to-day issues. These patterns of operation and management have led to a sense of chaos where ‘getting through the day’ becomes the norm rather than actually achieving a purpose.”

According to the report, there exists at Vaughn “a divide between DOC executives, mid-level managers, shift supervisors and line officers,” with supervisors expressing doubt there are supported by senior management. That conflicts with the belief top officials have that “they are very supportive of their supervisors and have given supervisors the authority to do what is in the best interest of the safety and security of the correctional center.”

Gang presence in the Vaughn may have played a role in the events of Feb. 1, Mr. Oberly said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

He said he did not think it would be helpful to publicize the names of such gangs. Mr. Oberly also said state police may have more information on gang members in Vaughn.

On Feb. 1, as officials responded to the incident, three separate “command posts” were established, which led to confusion and the Vaughn warden initially believing a Delaware State Police drone was from the media.

The warden, David Pierce, has since been reassigned elsewhere in the agency and replaced by former Air Force Lt. Col. Dana Metzger.

In the absence of harmony and organization, the report says, “staff often end up ‘doing their own thing,’ rather than following a clear plan or strategy.”

Policies are often ignored and not updated, according to the conclusions, creating inconsistencies in how officers operate. Additionally, information about which inmates are believed to be in gangs is not shared consistently, resulting in potential security risks.

Salaries and hours

Officers often work more than 40 hours — and sometimes up to 80 hours — a week because of understaffing and an overreliance on overtime, the findings state.

“Although overtime is voluntary, the overtime requirements are so excessive that correctional officers report routinely missing out on important family events due to being ‘frozen’ at the end of their shift or being denied vacation time even when a request is put in ‘six months in advance.’ This level of work intrusion into correctional officers’ personal lives has eliminated any sense of work-life balance with significant impacts on their individual and most probably their family’s mental health and wellness.”

Coupled with pay that is below surrounding states and generally does not increase much as officers advance, and turnover is high.

According to the report, starting salaries for officers at Vaughn are about $32,000 in the current fiscal year, while those who have 20 years under their belts make $41,000.

The state is struggling to attract and retain officers, something the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware has complained about for years. The report terms the facility “critically understaffed,” and while Gov. Carney has proposed adding 75 officers to the prison, the union believes that is still not enough.

Officers are concerned about a lack of quality training: “In those rare instances that training is provided to officers and supervisors, it is one dimensional, static and overly elementary,” the report says.

“JTVCC employees at all levels indicated they had only participated in basic security related training during the past several years. Supervisors report that subject matter experts are not used for in-service training classes (with very few exceptions), and administration notes that since 2010, most of the training has moved to online platforms. When in-person training is conducted, it is reportedly carried out by people who have worked in the training division for many years with no recent facility experience or familiarity in evidence-based correctional practices.”

According to the correctional officers’ union, department-wide training has not been updated since 1985. That, the findings conclude, “exposes the Delaware DOC to operational risks, safety and security issues, low morale and litigation.”

Many officers “feel undervalued and dehumanized” by how they are treated, the report says.

Inmates

Correctional officers are not the only ones with concerns: Inmates say they are distressed with the lack of opportunities offered. Overcrowding in the prison has created a waiting list for “educational, vocational and substance abuse programs,” even when they are court-ordered.

The report notes many inmates are bored, want to receive training for specific skills and do not see a reason to follow the rules in the prison.

“All correctional officer’s interviews expressed the opinion that idleness was a problem and that they would much rather see inmates working or learning job skills,” it says.

As a result, inmates are generally focused on the day-to-day, and rehabilitation takes a backseat.

Mistreatment is also an issue, and inmates reported discipline is extremely varied, per the 54-page document.

“Due to inconsistencies from shift to shift and officer to officer, the inmates had little or no structure and were given different answers by correctional officers in response to their questions regarding the policies and procedures they were expected to follow,” the findings state.

“The lack of effective communication and inconsistent operations within the housing unit became a point of contention among the inmates. More than one inmate stated that consistency in following procedures was more acceptable than inconsistency, which seems to be the prevailing norm. Officers and inmates are concerned about retaliation if they report an officer for not enforcing the rules appropriately or performing their duties unprofessionally.”

An agreement with the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union and the Community Legal Aid Society Inc. to provide better treatment for inmates with mental health issues may have contributed to the incident, the report says, as Vaughn staff sometimes changed policies to ensure they were not violating the terms of the agreement.

Vaughn contains a mix of minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates, and officers have said the agreement led to greater intermingling between the levels.

What’s next

The report contains about 30 official recommendations for lawmakers and the department, ranging from hosting a conference “to discuss the future of corrections in Delaware” to developing a well-defined career ladder.
Roll calls and elimination of the “Code of Silence” to create more trust between management and the rank and file can improve communication, while regular policy reviews can keep procedures current and effective, the report says.

It calls for researching correctional systems in other states to find what they do well, something already begun by Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps.
Several items urge officials to create additional training for officers, and one recommendation notes the state should “encourage alternatives to incarceration programs.” Delaware has recently begun to emphasize treatment rather than punishment for some crimes, especially ones dealing with drug addiction.

Mr. Oberly said Friday he was unsure what actions lawmakers will take. The General Assembly goes on break until January after June 30, creating a sense of urgency for officials.

Still, many of the issues are cultural and cannot be solved easily.
“You’re not going to change this thing next month,” Mr. Oberly said.

While a complaint filed against the state by survivors of the Feb. 1 incident alleged Gov. Carney overruled Warden Pierce to delay a rescue attempt, Mr. Oberly said he had “no reason” to believe Lt. Floyd’s life could have been saved if officers have breached the prison sooner.

Gov. Carney has adamantly denied ordering law enforcement to wait.
In a statement Friday, the governor said he will seriously review the recommendations issued by Judge Chapman and Mr. Oberly.

“It will not collect dust on a shelf,” Gov. Carney said. “We are committed to taking appropriate action that will enhance safety and security for Delaware’s correctional officers and inmates at Vaughn and at all of Delaware’s correctional facilities. We owe that to Lt. Floyd and all the victims of the Feb. 1 incident.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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