Still long way to go to correct ‘reckless indifference’

Though Gov. John Carney and his administration are trying not to let the February 2017 prison riot at the James Vaughn Correctional Center define them, the event has cast a long shadow. From recent news reports and based on the interim report of the independent review team, there is still much to address in fixing what ails Delaware’s prison system, not just at the Smyrna facility.

First, the issue of troublesome inmates was reported by Lt. Steven Floyd prior to his murder during last year’s riot. While those ostensibly responsible for his death have been indicted and transferred, others not directly involved but suspected have been cast with blame and either locked up in solitary confinement or punished in another fashion. Meanwhile, even non-violent inmates are being denied timely access to counsel, a serious constitutional breach.

Second, according to Geoff Klopp, president of the Delaware Correctional Officers Association, staff shortcomings at the Vaughn prison have reached a “catastrophic level,” with 100 fewer officers there now than last February. The result is unfair to both officers, many of whom must perform forced overtime, and to prisoners, who are denied use of facilities and visitations when the staff tries to be everywhere at once. The installation of security cameras may make Department of Correction personnel feel safer, but until there is a proper staffing of the prison, there is potential for another uprising.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The response to the complaints about pay and morale by correction officers was to offer a small increase in pay. That is inadequate, and yet the state has already shelled out almost $8 million in settlement funds to victims. While money will not solve all matters in this regard, there must be a recalibration of salary levels for correction staff, both for new and veteran officers. Minimum pay should be no less than $50,000 for these brave men and women, who risk their lives in the same manner as first responders. Not paying personnel what they are worth is an insult to them and to their profession.

After replacement of the Vaughn warden and DOC head, correction officials are making a point of showing their willingness to meet with the Inmate Advisory Council and to listen more than in the past. Yet, previous recommendations for improvement were ignored or inadequately addressed by the DOC, giving one less confidence that the independent review team’s suggestions will fare any better. As one inmate characterized it, there was “reckless indifference” to past requests. There must be a system created for consistent communication between inmates and staff, but also for accountability by DOC when mandated changes are not implemented.

Because Lt. Floyd was African American, the racist history of Delaware’s prison system has been lost in the recriminations from last year’s riot. In actuality, things haven’t progressed much since a study published more than a decade ago by the Delaware Center for Justice and Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League found that Delaware’s incarceration rate per 100,000 population far exceeds that of the United States overall as well as most other countries in the world. Further, the latter report documented that although African Americans represented one-fifth of the state’s population, they accounted for 64 percent of the prison population. Like the state’s education system, the residue of racism continues to corrode the criminal justice system in Delaware, even as mandatory minimum sentences and bail procedures have been revised.

There are some hopeful signs for both correction officials and inmates, such as more sharing of information about gang member inmates among staff and restoration of education resources, respectively. But stories about seizing legal documents from inmates, unnecessary brutalization in treatment, and the prospect of another round of lawsuits from both correction staff and inmates demonstrate how far there is to go before Delaware’s prisons can be regarded as safe, fair, and effective.

The Vaughn facility’s new warden, Dana Metzger, whose background includes operating military prisons, must work to find a solution to the age-old dilemma of incarceration: rehabilitation v. punishment. One does not have to be a reformer to realize that a balance of both of those objectives will produce the best outcome for inmates, correction officials, and the citizens of the First State.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Program Director at Delaware State University. He has previously advised inmates in the state who have written him about problems and issues in Delaware prisons and has taught correction officials pursuing higher education at DSU.

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