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Year after deadly riot, Del. prison still potentially explosive

The Delaware prison remains understaffed and managed by overworked COs overseeing hundreds of inmates


By Randall Chase
Associated Press

DOVER, Del. — One year after a deadly inmate riot and hostage-taking, Delaware's maximum-security prison remains a potentially explosive, understaffed facility managed by overworked guards overseeing hundreds of inmates with too much idle time on their hands, according to prison officials, employees and inmates.

An independent review ordered by Democratic Gov. John Carney two weeks after the riot at Vaughn Correctional Center includes scores of recommendations, many of which remain unimplemented, officials acknowledge. Many of those reforms depend on adequate staffing, which remains an elusive goal.

In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, a prison guard stands on a tower during a hostage situation at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del. (Suchat Pederson/The News Journal via AP)
In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, a prison guard stands on a tower during a hostage situation at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Del. (Suchat Pederson/The News Journal via AP)

"Everything we would like to do ... we don't have enough staff to do that," said Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps.

The Smyrna prison was the site of a Feb. 1, 2017 uprising, during which correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed and three other staffers were taken hostage. The siege ended when tactical teams used a backhoe to breach a wall and rescue a female counselor, hours after the release of two guards who had been beaten.

Eighteen prisoners have been charged in the riot. Sixteen are charged with first-degree murder in Floyd's death.

The review team, appointed by Carney and led by a former judge and a former U.S. Attorney, issued a final report in August concluding the riot was the culmination of years of dysfunction within a "critically understaffed" prison.

"For years, excessive mandated overtime and fatigue ... inconsistent management ... the lack of communication, adversarial relationships, and a general lack of respect at all levels ... have contributed to poor correctional officer morale and increasing hostility between inmates and correctional officers," the review stated.

In a recent progress report on implementing the reforms, the administration pointed to additional officer training in risk management, leadership and other areas; and efforts to improve communication among officers, inmates and supervisors, including the establishment of advisory councils for both prisoners and correctional officers.

Officials also are hiring experts to review inmate access to health care and the prisoner-grievance system. The governor's review team quoted one Vaughn staffer as saying, "Delivery of health care is terrible. ... Medical needs are not being met."

Meanwhile, inmates have long complained that the grievance process is stacked against them because Department of Correction staff control the committees that hear their complaints.

"I'm encouraged by the progress," said Phelps, who has expressed confidence in the new warden at Vaughn, former Air Force lieutenant colonel Dana Metzger. Metzger's predecessor, David Pierce, was reassigned after the riot, and the prison's former security chief, Jeffrey Carrothers, is no longer with the Department of Correction. Department officials have refused to say whether Carrothers quit or was forced out.

But Steve Hampton, an attorney who has filed lawsuits on behalf of inmates complaining of inadequate health care, noted recently that he remains "overwhelmed" with prisoner complaints.

Others also remain skeptical about the state's reform efforts, pointing to a system in which vital programs for prisoners — and the staffing needed to offer them — are still woefully lacking.

"The intent of the Department of Corrections is to rehabilitate and return the offender back to society. That's not being done on any level because there's no programs here to do it," said Christopher Desmond, 56, a convicted robber and one of about 2,200 Vaughn inmates.

The review ordered by Carney concluded that "the lack of inmate programming and training ... has worsened inmate morale, and left them with extensive amounts of idle time in which to plan disruptive, dangerous, and deadly acts."

Officials say they've renewed their focus on services for Vaughn inmates, including educational and job-training programs, library and religious services. But performance measures included in a department budget request in November suggested halving the number of participants in several treatment programs — including those for sex offenders and substance abusers — as well as in religious and other activities that serve as alternatives to violence. The budget proposal submitted by Carney last week restored the numbers but doesn't propose increases.

"Give me one hour of programming a week — not even a day — a week," said Vaughn inmate Robert Adger, 33, serving time for robberies he said he committed to feed a heroin addiction. "All I want is to be placed in a program so I can get help."

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, agrees that inmates still aren't getting the programs they need, and he blames chronic understaffing.

Between the day of the uprising and the end of last year, 99 guards resigned and 77 retired, while the number of vacancies climbed to 128, almost four times the number at the end of 2016, according to the Department of Corrections. As of last week, there were 123 vacancies among the 676 budgeted positions at Vaughn.

"If you think four correctional officers to 165 medium-high inmates is adequate staffing, then we disagree," Klopp said. "People are exhausted and they don't feel safe, and they're tired of being forced to work overtime."

State funding for scores of new positions and increased salaries for guards have done little to resolve the staffing problem.

"It doesn't matter how many authorized positions we have if we can't fill them," Carney said.

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