At 1:59 p.m. on February 1, 2017, the tip line rang in the newsroom at Delaware’s largest paper. Reporters from The News Journal were the first members of the media to hear about a disturbance and hostage situation at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that would end 19 hours later with one guard dead.
The caller, who was relaying information from her fiancé, a prisoner being held hostage in Building C, detailed some of the rebelling prisoners’ demands. She said the prisoners had taken control of their unit and were holding five prison employees hostage. They were demanding an end to “oppression towards the inmates,” specifically citing the facility’s practice of “improper sentencing orders” and “status sheets being wrong.” Later, a second call detailed the demands of the hostage-takers, who reportedly said:
“We’re trying to explain the reasons [ ] for doing what we’re doing. Donald Trump. Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know that the institution is going to change for the worse. We know the institution is going to change for the worse. We got demands that you need to pay attention to, that you need to listen to and you need to let them know. Education, we want education first and foremost. We want a rehabilitation program that works for everybody. We want the money to be allocated so we can know exactly what is going on in the prison, the budget.”
As the standoff progressed, three of the five prison employees and 46 prisoners were allowed to exit the building, leaving only an unnamed female counselor and a guard, Sgt. Steven Floyd, Sr., as hostages. Around 11 p.m., three maintenance workers who had been hiding in the basement made their way to safety. Finally, at about 5 a.m. on February 2, 2017, a tactical response team used a backhoe to break into Building C. There they discovered the shaken counselor and Floyd’s body. Sgt. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a local hospital; no other serious injuries were reported among staff or prisoners.
Although there were reports of “sharp weapons” being used during the incident, prison officials declined to release the manner of Floyd’s death. Police reports indicated that Floyd’s last act was to warn other prison employees of a trap the rebelling prisoners had set.
According to Robert M. Coupe, secretary of the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security, some prisoners helped to protect the female counselor during the standoff. “There were inmates that actually shielded this victim and ensured her safety,” he noted.
In a statement, Governor John Carney said the state’s top priority was to determine what happened and how the crisis unfolded over the course of the “long and agonizing situation.” That included holding those responsible accountable and making “whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”
While the prisoners who participated in the hostage-taking will undoubtedly be held accountable, it’s less likely that prison officials who contributed to the conditions and problems at the facility that led to the uprising will likewise be held responsible. There is some hope that they will, though; on February 16, 2017, state authorities announced the prison’s warden, David Pierce, had been placed on paid administrative leave.
Prison officials as well as prisoners and their outside advocates all noted that problems had been brewing at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center for many years. Within three weeks after the hostage-taking incident, 29 employees from the facility’s medical contractor resigned, including a health services administrator, eight registered nurses and three nurse practitioners. Additionally, eight guards reportedly resigned shortly after the standoff.
Sources: www.csmonitor.com, www.broadcastify.com, www.thehill.com, www.cnn.com, www.delawareonline.com, www.abcnews.go.com, www.medium.com
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