Delaware Public Media

Analysis of prisoner grievance letters finds pre-uprising spike

Jun 7, 2017

The local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild announced Wednesday they’ve analyzed patterns in pre-uprising grievance letters from First State prisoners sent to the ACLU of Delaware since 2011.


In March, supervising attorney for the Delaware and New Jersey chapter of the National Lawyers Guild Paul Stanley Holdorf began analyzing patterns in over 2,200 grievance letters from Delaware prisoners to the ACLU over the past few years.

 

Holdorf says more 1,000 letters were from Vaughn inmates – and they provide important clues about what was going on inside the prison before the deadly February uprising there that left one correctional officer.

 

“We think we have the only hard data on what prisoners were saying before the incident,” Holdorf said.

 

There was a steep increase in grievance letters sent from Vaughn inmates between 2014 and 2015 - with major jumps in prisoner complaints about access to grievance forms and mental health care. There was a 533% increase in prisoner complaints about access to grievance reports and a 450% spike in complaints about access to mental health care.

Those numbers remained steady - with still slight increases - into January of this year. The analysis cites complaints about living conditions increasing marketdly in the last few four months of 2016, just months before the uprising. Complaints about legal matters - including access to courts, lawyers, legal materials, the law library, and legal mail - also increased during that four-month period.

MacRae says the sheer number of letters received - and the contents of them - are telling.

 

“The prisoners were reaching out, they were complaining, they were making it known that the conditions in the prison were deteriorating and a crisis point was fast approaching," MacRae said.

MacRae says she believes if Vaughn handled grievances better – the uprising could have been anticipated and prevented.

 

“If the Department of Correction had a grievance process that was comprehensive, transparent, and legitimate then they can track that data and they can know if there are situations within their system that are reaching a crisis point," MacRae said.

 

The ACLU of Delaware has made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about Vaughn’s grievance process. MacRae says from what she’s learned so far – it’s far less transparent than many other states.

 

This is the first analysis of prisoner grievance letters received by the ACLU of Delaware. Along with the National Lawyers Guild, they're currently working to include letters received from other groups like the Delaware Coalition for Prison Reform in the database – and eventually expand the grievance analysis model to other states.