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Report: long-ignored issues at Vaughn led to deadly prison riot

Delaware Public Media

A lack of properly trained staff, poorly implemented policies and a disjointed prison system are to blame for a deadly riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in February, according to a newly released, preliminary report on the incident.

The independent investigation led by a retired Family Court Judge William Chapman Jr. and retired U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III found correctional officers had “a clear and pervasive sense of frustration, cynicism, and apathy” on the job.


The 54-page report says that feeling is fed by the state “overly relying” on overtime to make up for high turnover and significant vacancies, leaving officers “physically and mentally exhausted.”


Prison guards are often “frozen” in place toward the end of their shift for another eight-hours to prevent Vaughn from being understaffed at any given time, leaving them with an erratic and unreliable schedule.


“This level of work intrusion into correctional officers’ personal lives has eliminated any sense of work-life balance with significant impacts on their individual, and most probably their family’s mental health and wellness.”


A state audit found in the two most recent fiscal years officers earned nearly $39 million in overtime. That averages out to nearly $840,000 each pay period, accounting for nearly 38 percent of all overtime paid to public workers.


Despite the extra pay, the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, which represents day-to-day guards, claims a turnover rate that’s averaged 57 percent over 16 years.


Entry-level salaries for these correctional officers starts at $32,000, not counting hazardous duty pay. And overtime pay is spread out in such a way that the vast majority of these guards earn less than $10,000 a year in OT.


Such longstanding issues, Oberly concedes, can't be fixed overnight.


“Can they be dealt with on a very short-term basis? I don’t think so,” he said. "I do think the processes, if they’re really taken seriously and taken under consideration from both the inmates’ perspective and well as the correctional officers’, if they see some movement I think that would be helpful.”


Substantive training is typically reserved for highly specialized teams.


“When staff see attention, perks, and praise focused primarily on specialized units, it sends the message that they are less important, less valued, and command a lower priority within the facility.”


Basic security training for these rank and file officers is taught either online or by those who have long worked in the training division with little recent experience in the prison.


“In those rare instances that training is provided to officers and supervisors, it is one dimensional, static, and overly elementary.”


The few training sessions they do have sometimes get canceled because Vaughn – and the rest of Delaware’s prisons – are constantly short-staffed.


“If you’re doing away with the training because you don’t have enough personnel you’re losing twice: you don’t have the people to man the facility and you also are not being trained to keep up with the issues that are rife,” Oberly said.

A lack of communication among staff and correctional officers inconsistently enforcing prison rules has also been pervasive, according to the report.


“Officers and inmates are concerned about retaliation if they report an officer for not enforcing the rules appropriately or performing their duties unprofessionally.”


Even if inmates report such problems, during interviews, most say the grievance process is “meaningless.”


The preliminary report outlined 30 recommendations in all.


The authors say a consistent and clear level of expectations for guards, more training, higher pay and open communication at all levels in the Department of Correction are critical.


They also say Delaware should develop a pilot program for body cameras within state prisons – a rarity among other departments across the country, but a practice that’s becoming more widespread.


Gov. John Carney (D) has tried to address some of these concerns earlier this year.


Carney immediately injected $341,000 into new security and communications equipment, proposed adding 50 new guards at Vaughn and kickstarted contract negotiations with union representatives.


Correctional officer Steven Floyd died during the 15-hour hostage standoff at Building C on Feb. 1, though an autopsy hasn’t been made public.


The facility had originally been built to house maximum-security inmates, but had recently been converted into a transitionary facility taking in both lower and higher risk prisoners.


It had no security cameras.


Those responding could only watch a feed trained on the front door. What the camera couldn’t show were footlockers filled with water stacked behind the door in an attempt to block any rescue.


Hours after inmates released two of the guards they held hostage, state police broke down the door with a backhoe early in the morning of Feb. 2.


They rescued the remaining counselor and found Floyd’s body shortly after.


A criminal investigation remains ongoing and the team issuing this initial independent review had no access to internal affairs reports or other materials.


It’s unclear when the state’s investigation will wrap up. As of now, all 120 inmates in Building C at the time are still considered suspects.


About 2,500 inmates have been crowded into James T. Vaughn in recent years.


The independent review team says state legislators could consider lowering sentences for offenders to further alleviate staffing concerns amid budget pressures.


Alternative sentencing and reentry programs could also play a role in the mix, they said.


Such moves could also lead to more inmates


If lawmakers refuse to address these longstanding issues, the report says they “…will continue provide fertile ground for chaos and violence in the facility.”

Vaughn prison riot independent review - Initial Report by Delaware Public Media on Scribd

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