Prison reform group calls for federal probe

Steven R. Floyd

NEW CASTLE — Several religious, civil rights and community leaders on Tuesday called on the federal government to investigate last week’s inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

The 19-hour standoff in the prison near Smyrna ended in the death of one correctional officer and serious injuries to several others.

Members of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice gathered at Canaan Baptist Church to say they believe changes need to be made in the state’s correctional system to benefit both officers and inmates.

“We’re calling for an independent federal investigation regarding the circumstances that led to the uprising, the riot, the hostage crisis,” said pastor and former New Castle County Council President Christopher Bullock.

“We do not feel that the state can investigate itself,” he added.

Christopher Bullock, a member of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice, speaks Tuesday during a news conference calling for a federal investigation of last week’s inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

The incident at Vaughn began at about 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 1. That’s when inmates took three correctional officers and one counselor hostage inside Building C that houses approximately 120 inmates. Those inmates are in transition from medium to maximum security incarceration.

Two of the hostages were released during the next 10 hours.

Shortly after 5 a.m. the next day, correctional and police officers broke into the building. They freed the other hostage, but correctional officer Steven R. Floyd, 47, was found dead.

The Delaware Division of Forensic Science later ruled his death a “homicide by trauma.”

“We are as guilty of Floyd’s death as the inmates because we let him down,” former Delaware NAACP president Richard Smith said Tuesday.

Praising Mr. Floyd as a “fallen hero,” Mr. Bullock said he hopes his death serves as a wake-up call for the state that can lead to improved conditions inside prisons.

Speakers mourned Mr. Floyd and called for greater pay for correctional officers. They also criticized the state for what they said is a failure to properly rehabilitate offenders.

“As a state we have failed the least of those,” said New Castle County Councilman Jea Street, citing Matthew 25 in the Bible that calls for assisting the downtrodden and unfortunate.

Leaders of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware have said for years the state needs to hire more officers and raise salaries.

At the same time, some advocates, inmates and family members of offenders have protested conditions inside the state’s prisons.

“We do not want them to come out as better prisoners but better people,” Mr. Bullock said. “And the department must make up its mind — either it’s going to be Department of Corrections or the Department of Punishment. You can’t do both.

“You call it the Department of Corrections, then we need correcting measures in the prison, specifically as it relates to morality, spirituality and job skill training.”

Mr. Smith said the prisons are overcrowded and inmates are treated like animals. He also saiid correctional officers are paid less in Delaware than in surrounding states.

Transparency and “bold leadership” can lead to changes that can make Delaware a national model for prison and criminal justice reform, Mr. Bullock told the assembled listeners.

But first, he said, an examination into both the uprising and the conditions at the prison is needed — and coalition members do not trust the state to properly investigate.

“For too long we’ve had these investigations and reports but they ended up on the shelf collecting dust,” Mr. Bullock said.

A state police investigation into the death of Mr. Floyd continues.

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