The uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center


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)

SMYRNA — State police and Department of Correction officials said they are continuing to investigate the Feb. 1 prison uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd dead.

Since the initial press conferences, information about the incident has been merely trickling from the two organizations.

In the intervening weeks, more than a dozen officers have resigned, union leaders have called for reform in staffing procedures and the governor has named two former judges to lead an independent investigation.

According to the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware (COAD), inmate assaults on officers and general disobedience, which was already at a troubling level before, has been on the rise since the incident.

What is known of the uprising?

Although a full play-by-play account of the events hasn’t been issued by the state police or DOC, a patchwork sketch of events that unfolded on that Wednesday morning has started to take shape from press conferences, interviews with COAD officials and a lawsuit filed by an inmate who claims to have been involved.

According to a series of reports given by correction and state officials, the takeover of C Building, a medium-high security transitional building, began at approximately 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 1. During the incident, inmates took four correctional workers — three officers and a counselor — hostage. Two of the three officers were released later that day.

Several groups of inmates were also released from the building at intervals. Negotiators spoke with inmates via a radio taken from a correctional officer hostage. Three DOC maintenance staff members, who’d been trapped in C Building, were also rescued early the following morning.

The siege lasted 19 hours. The decision to burst into the barricaded building came at around 5 a.m. on Feb. 2, when negotiation experts determined there was significant stalling and fear for the remaining hostages’ well-being was rising.

Earlier in negotiations, the inmates had bargained to have the water in Building C turned back on so they could “hydrate” and for hygiene purposes, but they instead used the water to fill footlockers to add weight and blocked entryways with them. The DOC team used a backhoe to gain entry.

Upon entry, the team secured the female counselor in less than two minutes. A few minutes later, the tactical team located Lt. Floyd and he was unresponsive.

Officials confirmed that 16-year veteran Sgt. Floyd died sometime during the siege. He was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. The Delaware Division of Forensic Science later ruled his death a “homicide by trauma.” He is believed to be the first correctional officer to die during duty in Delaware.

Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Secretary Robert Coupe noted it appeared as if several inmates had “shielded” the female counselor from harm during the siege.

Donald Parkell, 39, who filed a federal lawsuit in connection with the incident last Tuesday, claimed to be one of three inmates that protected her. Parkell, in a 14-page handwritten filing, said he was held hostage during the siege and no more than 10 prisoners were behind the takeover.

According to Parkell, three correctional officers, including the late Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., were “savagely beaten and restrained” by some of the inmate-captors. The officers’ heads were covered by hoods or bags, according to the lawsuit, which also states that, “The captors wore hoods or similar disguises to prevent identification.”

Parkell, who is incarcerated at Vaughn according to an online prison registry, has filed a series of actions against the Delaware Department of Correction in the past.

Attackers announced they would release all remaining hostages and surrender at 6 a.m., according to Parkell, but rescuers entered shortly after 5 a.m. on Feb. 2 “using a backhoe, concussion grenades, and overwhelming numbers.”

Parkell and two inmates claimed to tell rescuers of the counselor’s whereabouts and she “was pulled by unknown officers to safety.”

According to the lawsuit, the counselor yelled to the officers that the three inmates had protected her during the ordeal, and then an arriving sergeant “told officers ‘don’t hurt these 3.

After the uprising was quelled, officials said 120 inmates were examined medically, searched and then secured in another facility. None of them had “reportable” injuries.

Immediately following the breach, the entirety of C Building was treated as a crime scene and all inmates, including those released early, were being treated as suspects. Since then, the DOC has retaken control of C Building, but has not moved inmates back in.

Investigations and probes

Since the incident, investigations and probes have been called for.

On Feb. 7, the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice called for the federal government to look into the Vaughn incident.

On Feb. 14, Gov. John Carney signed an executive order officially placing a former Delaware Supreme Court justice and former Family Court judge in charge of a review of the uprising.

Henry Ridgely, who served on the state’s top court from 2004-15, and William Chapman, a Family Court judge from 1995-2015, are tasked with determining what occurred and what steps the state can take to keep its prisons safe.

Gov. Carney stressed that the investigation would be “independent.”

Delaware State Police investigators are conducting a criminal probe and the Department of Correction is looking into the matter internally as well. The review ordered by the governor will not begin until the criminal probe concludes.

A state police spokesman said no timetable has been set for when the criminal inquiry will be completed.

Union: staffing woes

Since the uprising, the COAD has pointed to several factors which they feel contributed to the uprising. The most salient of which are under-staffing concerns. Responding to questions at the press conference about the facility being short-staffed, Mr. Coupe noted that the DOC has roughly 1,700 positions and on any given day they typically carry 90 vacancies. This shortfall is made up through overtime and canceling programs and visitations when necessary, Mr. Coupe said.

Geoff Klopp, COAD’s president, said the uprising “was preventable.”

As recently as Dec. 25, Delaware State News spoke to Mr. Klopp about assaults against guards raising concerns about prison staffing. At the time, he said: “I’ve been in corrections for 28 years and all the signals are pointing to something terrible happening in one of these facilities (Delaware state prisons). We’ve got over 200 people set to start retiring next year starting on Jan. 1. By next summer I’d be amazed if we don’t have to call the National Guard in. I have been talking about this for five years and no one has done a thing.”

Mr. Klopp said it was the COAD’s belief that this prison takeover took place because issues like staffing shortages, employee wages, retention and excessive overtime weren’t addressed by former Gov. Jack Markell’s administration.

These are the same issues cited by Mr. Klopp in the Delaware State News articles in December and August. In the August story, Mr. Klopp was quoted as saying: “As far as I’m concerned, we’re in crisis mode.”

Referencing an alleged conversation with Ann Visalli, former director of the Delaware Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Klopp said he’d been turned away without effort made toward a solution.

“We struggle to understand why the Department of Corrections leadership chooses to say that they have 90 vacancies with a $22 million overtime budget,” he said. “In a conversation with Ann Visalli, she told me that they were making a conscious decision to pay overtime because it was cheaper (than hiring new staff).”

Mr. Klopp also points to a recent agreement adopted by the DOC as a “contributing factor.”

To be in compliance with an American Civil Liberties Union agreement made in 2016, Mr. Klopp said 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.

The DOC flatly denied Mr. Klopp’s claim.

“Inmates are housed based on their classification score, which is derived from an objective tool that examines factors to include prior criminal history, institutional behavior, age and severity of crime,” said Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the DOC. “The ACLU agreement does not dictate housing — it only addresses the amounts of recreation and treatment offered to individuals in the areas identified as restrictive housing.”

But Mr. Klopp points to the recent addition of a designated mental health building as part of the cause. The Secure Housing Unit, which is maximum security, includes buildings 17, 18, 19 and 21, he explains.

“Inmates were flowed down from Building 21 because they turned it into a special mental health building,” he said.

Ms. Gravell said the additional housing was recently added to the Secure Housing Unit, actually creating more maximum security space.

“The ACLU agreement did not affect the housing of maximum security inmates, it’s inaccurate that inmates were moved to the C Building to make room for mental health inmates” she said. “In actuality, the elimination of the death penalty allowed for the creation of additional housing in the SHU. Furthermore, over the past eight months, the DOC increased beds in the SHU by a total of 96.”

While conceding that that’s true, Mr. Klopp said room was added only because inmates awaiting the death penalty were down flowed to lower security and the DOC removed a “recreation cage” from Building 19 and added an extra bunk to each cell — making what used to be single inmate cells into doubles.

“They down flowed these inmates to lower security, like C and B Building, even though they were on Death Row,” he said.

Going forward

Mr. Klopp, although holding the Markell administration responsible for not acting faster to remedy prison issues proactively, noted recently that he feels talks with Gov. Carney and freshly minted DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps have been constructive. He hopes that priority is places on addressing overtime and staffing.

“In my career as a corrections officer, we’ve wanted to try keep pace salary-wise with Delaware’s municipal police departments so we could be competitive to attract personnel, and we haven’t done that,” he said.

Mr. Klopp believes that this may be the case because correctional officers aren’t in the public eye as much as municipal police officers.

“We don’t generate any revenue or write any tickets — we’re in a black hole, and as far is everyone is concerned it just seems like all we do is ask for money,” he said.

A current job posting on the state’s website, with an opening date of Feb. 1, seeks potential correctional officer candidates. The yearly salary is listed at a minimum of $32,059.79 with hazardous duty pay of $3,120. Weekends and holidays are required. Applicants must have education, training and/or experience demonstrating competence in each of the following areas:

• At least 19 and 1/2 years of age.

• Possession of a high school Diploma or equivalent.

• Possession of a valid driver’s license (not suspended, revoked or canceled or disqualified from driving).

Making changes

During the siege inmates called in a list of demands to The News Journal — it was later substantiated by Mr. Coupe and he claimed that the items mentioned were the same that inmates had discussed with negotiators.

The demands called for prison reforms related to sentencing orders, status sheet errors, oppression, lack of programming and education.

Mr. Klopp acknowledged the need for changes, but said staffing issues needed attention first.

“I agree that inmates don’t have enough programs, enough jobs, enough education and we don’t focus enough on substance abuse and addiction,” said Mr. Klopp. “But everything leads back to staffing. If you don’t have enough staff for security, you definitely don’t have an extra officer to run a program, run a visit or run a class.”

Mr. Klopp noted that he is working with legislators on different prison system changes as well.

“We’ll will be looking at a death penalty bill and introducing it in the near future,” he said.

A state Supreme Court’s ruling on Aug. 2 concluded that the death penalty as currently practiced in Delaware violated the U.S. Constitution.

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