Questions remain about administrative failings

 

One of the watch towers at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. The riot erupted on Feb. 1, 2017. When it ended, a correctional officer was dead and several others injured and traumatized. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — After an eight-month Delaware State Police criminal probe, 18 inmates were indicted in the Feb. 1 prison riot that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

Sixteen of them were charged with murder.

Most have already pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

What fault lies on the administrative side and who’s being held responsible are questions yet to be answered.

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 last April, 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 Department of Corrections.

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.”

Some, such as Dover lawyer Stephen Hampton, who is preparing a class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of inmates affected by the riot, feel the settlement was made simply to prevent the case from going to trial.

“I think they owe it to the public to explain why they’re spending that much public money if they actually think there is no liability,” he said. “There’s something else going on. I don’t know if it’s cost of litigation or not really wanting to delve into the discovery that would have been inevitable in a case like that. It’s curious that the state doesn’t want to admit that it did anything wrong, yet it’s paying $7.55 million. I always tell my clients, if they’re paying that much, it’s tantamount to an admission that they did something wrong. But, quite clearly, they don’t admit that in the documents.”

Mr. Hampton said he hopes a lawsuit on behalf of allegedly injured inmates in connection with the riot would uncover more information.

After receiving hundreds of letters from inmates after the uprising, Mr. Hampton wrote a letter to Gov. Carney in late March. He asked that the DOC end its retaliatory “brutalization” and “torture” of the prison population.

Shortly afterward, the governor’s office chief legal counsel responded by referring the letter to the DOC as that agency is “completely responsible for the maintenance, supervision and administration of adult detention and correctional services and facilities of the state.”

Mr. Hampton said on Friday that several other attorneys have expressed an interest in helping and they’re hoping to file the inmates’ lawsuit in the coming months.

Gov. John Carney’s Independent Review of the incident, released in September, suggested numerous administrative failings.

The 159-page final report conducted by former Family Court judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III, said that long-standing issues within Vaughn prison provided “fertile ground for chaos and violence in the facility.” The review also pointed out that a request by Lt. Floyd to have “over five” inmates removed from C Building (the site of the riot) was ignored.

“The incident that began on Feb. 1, would have likely occurred at some point somewhere within the JTVCC,” the review states. “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.”

Other issues cited included communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers, chronic correctional officer under-staffing and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners.

It’s thought additional information about the uprising itself and any administrative failings may come to light if the charges against the 18 inmates being held responsible make it to trial.

Reassignment, terminations

For its part, the DOC has made several high profile administrations changes since the riot. Most notable among them have been the reassignments of Vaughn Warden David Pierce and Bureau of Prisons chief Christopher Klein and the firing of Vaughn’s security superintendent Jeffrey Carrothers.

Mr. Carrothers said he was first reassigned to work in the DOC’s Dover headquarters a few weeks after the Feb. 1 incident. Declining to go into detail about the circumstances of his termination, Mr. Carrothers confirmed that he was fired in October. However, 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 said. “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 fired in connection with the Feb. 1 incident — despite having several superiors also responsible for security. Also, several subordinates, even more closely responsible for security at C Building were subsequently promoted, he claims.

When asked if the Independent Review team ever interviewed Mr. Carrothers, Gov. Carney’s spokesman Jonathan Starkey said: “The review was conducted independently, and I can’t speak for the team.”

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

About 20 days after the incident, Mr. Pierce was reassigned to the Bureau of Community Corrections.

In its final report, the governor’s Independent Review team said some Vaughn staff members believed Mr. Pierce’s policies put staff 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.

Although the ACLU and CLASI agreement terms have been criticized by the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) repeatedly for contributing to the Feb. 1 incident, the review team and ACLU maintain that it was the implementation of the terms that was at fault. According to the review team, the same settlement terms were instituted at all the other prisons in the state without issue.

“We need to acknowledge the prison management conditions in Vaughn have existed for years and years,” said ACLU director Kathleen MacRae. “The Feb. 1 riot was not a result of ACLU and CLASI settlement and the changes it imposed, that’s the excuse that was used by some to try to cast blame on those outside the prison system. But it’s been well established by many reports and studies that there are historical problems in the prison management system. The riot was the result of those long standing problems and we need to hold administrators accountable.”

The recently settled Vaughn lawsuit also alleged that Gov. Carney violated DOC policy during the Feb. 1 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 complaint claims 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 says.

Gov. Carney has publicly denied that claim.

According to the OMB, Mr. Pierce is currently working at the DOC’s headquarters in Dover and he retains the merit title of Warden V at a salary of $109,595.64.

In mid-May, Christopher 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.

Internal affairs investigation

The DOC is allegedly conducting an internal affairs investigation into the events of Feb. 1, but very little is known about it.

The DOC has not responded to questions about when the investigation is expected to be complete — only noting that it is currently in progress.

“The internal investigation into the incident on February 1-2 is ongoing so the DOC cannot provide comment,” said DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.

Whatever the investigation’s completion date, stakeholders appear to be lining up to examine its findings.

The COAD noted that its members look forward to the completion of the investigation.

“We hope that those, internally, that made mistakes are held responsible,” said COAD president Geoff Klopp. “We haven’t been given any hard dates on when that’ll be; ‘soon’ is all we’ve heard.”

At a Council on Correction meeting in November, newly minted chairman Darryl Chambers said the advisory group has an interest in being informed about the investigation after its completion as well.

“I think that it’ll be in our best interest to see what the conclusions are from the investigation,” he said. “I think when the time is right and the circumstances permit, that we will ask Alan (Grinstead, deputy DOC commissioner) or Commissioner Phelps or the governor himself that we be briefed on or be given a chance to see the high-level view of what’s happening. Possibly, some of the recommendations that come out of those things could dictate the direction we need to go as a council.”

Jonathan Starkey, a spokesman with the governor’s office, said Gov. Carney also eventually will be briefed on the investigation.

“The internal investigation is being led by the DOC and the governor will be briefed upon its conclusion,” said Mr. Starkey. “Along with the criminal investigation and the independent review, this is one of three investigations into the events of Feb. 1 and 2 at JTVCC. “The governor is confident that we will end up with a comprehensive understanding of what happened.”

Ms. MacRae warned that if appropriate administrative changes aren’t made, a cycle of poor management will continue.

“We’ll have to wait and see on the internal affairs investigation,” she said in early January. “I hope that this incident has been a wake-up call for the governor, General Assembly and DOC staff that this needs to be taken seriously. Change is hard. Cultural change is very hard, but it has to happen. Otherwise, another guard will be murdered or inmates will be hurt and the ACLU will file another lawsuit and the cycle will just continue.”

Others have even less faith. Mr. Hampton called the prison system a “hotbed of nepotism and good ol’ boyism” and said that internal affairs investigations are “just for show.”

The DOC holding its administrators accountable for their actions isn’t likely because it would disturb the status quo, he said.

“People working in the prison system that have ambition really don’t want to rock the boat that much so they are going to do what they can, be a good soldier with what they’ve got and not address the problems,” he said.

“There have been a few small changes, but by and large, you get ahead by who you know and who you hang out with, not by merit. Look at the system from the top: you find the commissioners being here for a number of years and then going on to better jobs or newer jobs, like getting appointed to be a judge or the head of Homeland Security.”

He claims that in his 30 years working as a lawyer in Delaware, he’s seen the state’s prisons languish and become less safe for inmates and staff members alike.

“You don’t get elected to office by running on a ‘let’s fix the prisons’ platform,” Mr. Hampton said. “If political will could fix this, it would have been done 20 years ago.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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