Vaughn prison riot settlement now raising new concerns

 

DOVER — Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD) president Geoff Klopp said last week the only thing the union cares about at the end of the day is that its members are satisfied.

While Mr. Klopp still has strong reservations about perceived systemic ills with the state’s prison system, specifically with understaffing, he wished the deadly Feb. 1 Vaughn prison uprising survivors the best in the wake of the settlement of the lawsuit they brought against the state.

“The whole COAD wishes them well and hopes that the settlement brings them some measure of peace and closure,” said Mr. Klopp.

The historic, record-breaking $7.55 million state-paid settlement was announced Dec. 15 in a joint news release from former federal Judge Joseph J. Farnan, Jr., who mediated the agreement. The funds are to be paid out to 11 claimants including the estate of Lt. Steven Floyd, the correction officer killed in the riot, his widow and three children, and to five other officers and a counselor who were held hostage during the riot.

The lawsuit was filed by Wilmington lawyers Thomas Neuberger and Tom Crumplar in April. Much of the complaint rested on the state’s alleged failure to provide a safe working environment for its employees and long ignored staffing issues within the DOC and how these failures led to the prisoner uprising on Feb. 1.

Correction Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp stands in front of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Though the case has been closed, Mr. Klopp does hold on to hope that an ongoing DOC internal affairs investigation will address any administrative failings that may have taken place during and in the run up to the riot.

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

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

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

Dover lawyer Stephen A. Hampton, who is preparing a class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of inmates affected by riot, holds no hope whatsoever for a DOC-led investigation.

“I’ve always been very underwhelmed by DOC internal affairs investigations,” he said. “I’ve seen them play out firsthand, and there is no real motivation for them to find out anything. I’ve seen this in cases where I’ve represented inmates who were beaten severely and internal affairs comes back and says, ‘well, we couldn’t figure out what happened, so no one gets punished.’ But, during depositions I made the people sit down under oath and answer the questions and very easily found the answers.”

Furthermore, Mr. Hampton is suspicious about the motives behind the recent large settlement.

“It’s interesting that the state is paying this much money on a case they’ve said in the past has no legal merit,” he said.

Earlier in July, lawyers representing state officials filed a brief that argued for dismissing the case, claiming there’s no constitutional right to workplace safety.

An oral argument had been scheduled for Nov. 20 so U.S. District Court Judge Richard Andrews could review the claims and decide whether or not the lawsuit should be allowed to proceed. However, the state requested the argument be postponed on Nov. 16, and settled out of court about a month later — choosing not to wait for the opportunity to lay the case before the judge.

“It just seems like this settlement is an awful lot of money to spend,” said Mr. Hampton. “I’m not begrudging the plaintiffs, for the number of them and the severity of the injuries and loss they’ve suffered, this might be an appropriate amount to pay them for their damages. But, in my experience, the state doesn’t usually pay — especially this kind of money — if they don’t think there is some liability.”

The state has claimed that the settlement was made to “avoid the burden and expense that comes with protracted litigation, and to bring closure to the matter.” But the state’s attorneys maintain that the claims against all the defendants lacked legal merit.

“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,” said Mr. Hampton. “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 be 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 hopes a lawsuit on behalf of allegedly injured inmates in connection with the riot ent would uncover more information.

After receiving hundred 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 it is “completely responsible for the maintenance, supervision and administration of adult detention and correctional services and facilities of the state.”

Currently, Mr. Hampton hopes to file his lawsuit before the one-year anniversary of the uprising.

ACLU: Hold state responsible

Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Delaware, thinks the historic settlement is a grim reminder that the state must be held responsible for meeting their “constitutional obligations.”

“There are definitely safety issues with how the prison is run,” she said. “They are very well documented in the independent review that Governor John Carney commissioned. There are management problems.

“The death of Lt. Floyd was a horrible tragedy, but there was no other way except for a lawsuit or settlement, in addition to the coming criminal trials for the convicted inmates, that the state was to be held responsible for the administration of the DOC.”

The independent review, conducted by a former Family Court Judge William Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III, was completed in early September. They produced a 159-page final report based on interviews with DOC correctional, educational, mental health and medical staff, including correctional supervisors, Vaughn administrators and executive administrators past and present. It also took into account letters from inmates and family members, interviews with community and inmates’ rights groups and other agency representatives.

Issues cited in the review included communication problems between management and staff, low morale and fatigue among correctional officers, chronic correctional officer understaffing and a lack of focus on rehabilitating prisoners.

Shortly after the uprising the COAD made claims that the terms of an ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society (CLASI) settlement with the DOC in 2016 contributed directly to the Feb. 1 uprising.

To be in compliance with the settlement terms, Mr. Klopp claimed that inmates known for being violent were “down flowed” to make room for inmates with special mental health needs. The lower security buildings they were being “down flowed” to included C Building, the site of the uprising, he said.

At the time, the DOC and ACLU refuted the claims. Later, the governor’s independent review team also examined the claim and found it to lack merit. It was suggested that the settlement terms themselves weren’t at fault, but rather the implementation of those terms were.

The team noted also that the terms had already been implemented without issue at all the other prisons in the state.

“We need to acknowledge the prison management conditions in Vaughn have existed for years and years,” said Ms. 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 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.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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