On July 12, 2004, Scott A. Miller, a Delaware prisoner serving a 699-year sentence for rape, assault and kidnapping, was shot to death by a prison guard at the Delaware Correctional Center. The shooting ended a 6 ½ hour standoff in which Miller had taken 27-year-old counselor Cassandra Arnold hostage in her office. Though the Department denies it, poor security and inadequate staffing likely contributed to the standoff.
The episode began shortly after 10 a.m. as Miller, 45, was leaving a counseling session in the prison's medium-high security unit, according to Delaware Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Stan Taylor. Supposedly, Miller requested additional counseling and passed through two security doors with or a few steps behind Arnold. As they neared her office, said Taylor, Miller grabbed Arnold and put an 8-inch nail-like shank to her throat. No guards were present. Miller then dragged Arnold into her office, turned off the lights, covered the windows with paper, and pushed all the furniture against the door, said Taylor. Miller then raped Arnold and threatened to kill her.
Armed guards quickly took up positions in the ceiling while negotiators talked to Miller. When Miller quit talking, the guards became nervous and moved aside a ceiling tile to peek in. Miller heard the movement and started toward one of the guards, then spun around and threatened to kill Arnold. High on adrenaline, one of the guards fired into the darkened room with a .40 caliber automatic pistol, hitting Miller twice in the chest. Miller died at the scene.
At least part of Taylor's account, however, is disputed by Arnold, who has since sued the DOC for failing to provide her with a safe workplace, and may have been constructed to downplay security lapses at the prison.
According Arnold, she did not walk with Miller or have additional counseling planned with him, and that she was shocked to find Miller lurking in a nearby bathroom 15 minutes after the group session ended.
Not surprisingly, Taylor, who is overseeing an internal investigation, has rejected calls by Arnold's attorneys and family for an independent review of the standoff. However, a special task force appointed by Governor Ruth Ann Miner is examining the incident and will provide a review of it. As this issue of PLN goes to press, the report has not been released.
After the incident, the guard who was controlling the two security doors that Miller passed through resigned, said DOC spokeswoman Noreen Renard, who declined to identify the guard. In addition, four other female guards quit after the standoff, because of what happened," said David Knight, senior vice president for the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, which represents the guards.
Taylor also claimed that staffing was not an issue, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Turnover has plagued the state since 1998, when Delaware began a 2,500-bed expansion of the prison system that was completed in 2002. Taylor conceded that in recent months the DOC has lost nearly twice as many guards as it has hired. In February, 2005, the DOC was short 332 guards out of a total of 1,830. Low pay may be a factor. At $26,230, the base pay in Delaware is less than that of surrounding states, which is $39,888 in New Jersey, $27,019 in Pennsylvania and $27,710 in Maryland. At least 47 Delaware guards are currently deployed with the National Guard or Army reserves.
Whatever the reason, the staff shortages have resulted in decreased security, according to Knight. People are doing so much overtime, they end up calling in sick themselves. They're getting burned out," he said. It's dangerous whenever you can have someone tired. Alertness is reduced. And morale gets killed to the point where they think, I don't want to see that place anymore.'
Sergeant Lisa David, a guard at the medium-high security unit where Miller was housed, said the guards she supervises are often exhausted from working 16-hour shifts, the result of forced overtime.
David and other union members believe staff shortages may have contributed to the Miller incident and other recent security lapses in Delaware. A few examples: A prisoner at the Delaware Correctional Center received 26 stitches after another prisoner cut him with a razor. A prisoner serving time for burglary swallowed a handcuff key as part of a failed escape plan while being taken to court. A prisoner escaped from the Kent County Courthouse after he was taken there from the Sussex Correctional Institution to face armed robbery charges--he remained at large for three weeks. And, a man who was on trial for raping a 91-year-old woman slit his own throat with a disposable razor, causing the judge to declare a mistrial.
Experts note that staff shortages, which are a nationwide problem, have contributed to recent episodes of prison violence in other states as well, including the 2004 assault of a kitchen worker and 2 guards during a 15-day standoff--the longest in U.S. history--by 2 prisoners at a state prison in Arizona [see PLN, July 2004, p. 16j.
Taylor said the use of deadly force against Miller was appropriate, but negotiators apparently made few efforts to end the standoff peacefully. Miller's sister, Sharon Harrison, said she and Miller's mother learned about his death from TV news reports. No one notified his family of any of this," she said. It would have been nice if we would have been able to talk to him and try and calm him down, just something.
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