Protest breaks out after uprising at prison


A group of men from Smyrna line up along Paddock Road near the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center to counter-protest a group gathered in support of inmates Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — At the same time state officials held a news conference in Newark laying out the details on Wednesday’s uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, protesters gathered by the prison near Smyrna.

Holding yellow signs proclaiming their support for the inmates locked up at Vaughn correctional center, men and women stood across the road from a small contingent of angry counter-protesters Thursday.

Calling for amnesty for the prisoners who participated in the riot that resulted in the death of one correctional officer and injuries to three other employees, the 10 or so protesters demanded an independent investigation into the incident. They were joined half an hour later by counter-protesters, and the two sides engaged for several minutes, with a fierce back-and-forth between demonstrators.

Despite the chilly weather, people stood outside for about an hour near the intersection of Paddock and Smyrna Landing roads, as close as they could get to the prison. Nearby, four police officers on horses watched, ready to intervene in case any violence broke out.

It was a reminder of the surreal events of Wednesday.

Surrounded by camera- and notepad-toting reporters, protesters insisted they would “fight for justice for the prisoners at the Vaughn Correctional Center.

“We don’t believe in any of these police accounts until we can get independent verification, until we can get uncensored, unfettered ability to talk with prisoners,” said Baltimore resident Sharon Black, a member of the left-wing Peoples Power Assembly.

James Green, who spent seven years in Vaughn, alleged the incident was the natural result of correctional officers mistreating inmates.

Sharon Black, center, with the Peoples Power Assembly, speaks to the media while former inmates Isaiah McCoy, left, and James Green, right, look on during a rally to support the inmates at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“This was building up. This was building up,” he told the assembled media. “It just came a point where it was unity. Unity, unity says it all. Everybody came, they came together as one.”

Asked what he thought about the fact that the riot left a man dead, Mr. Green said it was “bound to happen. It comes with the job.”

But the seven grim men standing across the street held a drastically different view.

“Evil exists and it’s incarcerated behind that fence line, and these people are supporting it,” said one man, who refused to give his name.

The men, at least three of whom either worked in Vaughn or have family members who do, came to show support for correctional officers and to counter the protesters across the street, who they said did not represent the community.

Isaiah McCoy, left, who was first convicted and then recently acquitted of a 2010 murder and spent six years incarcerated at Vaughn correctional center, argues with a group of men from Smyrna who came to support correctional officers. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Correctional officers, one of the counter-protesters said, are good people working to support their families, while inmates, in contrast, broke the law and are paying the consequences.

The two sides agreed high-ranking state officials are partly at fault, but they differed in what exactly they should be blamed for.

One counter-protester said Gov. John Carney failed to prevent the death of correctional officer Steven Floyd. Asked why, the man snorted and said simply, “He’s a Democrat.”

The protesters supporting the inmates said Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, former Commissioner Robert Coupe (now secretary of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security) and Warden David Pierce should be fired for not preventing “maltreatment” of inmates.

Several of the protesters spoke from experience. At least two served time in Vaughn, and one woman has a son currently incarcerated there.

Isaiah McCoy, a former death row inmate who was first convicted of a 2010 murder and then acquitted just two weeks ago, spoke with pride as he described what some on Twitter called the “Vaughn rebellion.”

“This is everything coming to a head,” he said. “The officers often take kindness for weakness. They come into work and they seek to oppress us.”

Mr. McCoy, whose 2012 conviction was vacated because of prosecutorial misconduct and judicial error, said he was beaten and had his food spat in and his letters tampered with while in Vaughn.

Angela Clacher, who said her son is serving 18 months for a nonviolent crime, said inmates are denied educational opportunities in the prison.

One of the counter-protesters told stories from his side as a correctional officer, saying he had urine thrown at him and was spat on by inmates.

The protesters across the street, he said, were “agitating for madness.”

As the demonstrations started to wind down Thursday morning, Mr. McCoy and several counter-protesters engaged in a loud dispute, despite one counter-protester attempting to convince his compatriots to ignore Mr. McCoy.

“After Obama came in, it’s all gone haywire,” one man said. “Now the blacks think they can run in.”

Several signs carried by protesters urged Delaware to prevent another Attica, referencing a 1971 prison riot in New York that saw the deaths of 43 people, both inmates and prison staff. Most of the dead were killed by law enforcement as state troopers stormed Attica Correctional Facility.

No inmates died Wednesday, and protesters mostly glossed over the death of Mr. Floyd, although Ms. Black speculated at one point he might not have been killed by inmates.

Like those standing alongside her carrying signs, she touted the Vaughn riot, praising inmates for fighting against the system.

“Rebellions, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, are the only weapon of those who’ve been silenced,” she said. “So people need to take into consideration the 2,500 prisoners who actually have been hostage to the worst kind of inhuman, subhuman kind of conditions.”

The election of Donald Trump as president, Ms. Black said, was the last straw for many prisoners.

“They don’t know what’s going to happen next in the atmosphere that we exist in. And I can tell you about that atmosphere,” she said. “I have had death threats, calls, countless calls, I don’t know how many calls, I have them right on my phone.

“This has happened because Trumpism has basically let them off the leash. The KKK types of folks, the Nazi type of folks, the Neo-Nazi type of folks. Basically, these prisoners are acting out of a fear of what Trumpism means to their future, that maybe their demands will never be heard.”

Many family members of inmates are afraid to speak out against the treatment occurring at the prison, she said.

Ms. Clacher said she was initially very worried about her son but began feeling more confident he was safe as events progressed and reports rolled in.

One man, who declined to give his name, said his son is a correctional officer but avoided Wednesday’s violence because he was undergoing special training.

Eventually, the situation outside Vaughn died down Thursday, and the pro-inmate protesters left the scene.

One counter-protester thanked the police officers watching intently from nearby, while another went to talk to several correctional officers directing traffic.

The protests had faded, but the lowered flags, the roadblocks and the officers stopping traffic by Vaughn were all reminders that normalcy remains far, far away.

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