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Deadly Prison Riot in Delaware: 18 Prisoners Indicted, Slain Guard’s Widow Settles Suit for $7.55 Million

by Derek Gilna

In October 2017, a New Castle County, Delaware grand jury indicted 18 prisoners from the maximum-security James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, 16 of whom were charged with the murder of Lt. Steven Floyd, Sr. The guard was the only fatality of a February 2017 riot at the prison, which also resulted in injuries to other employees and prisoners.

Meanwhile, a 54-page report prepared by the Police Foundation in August 2017 was critical not only of the crimes committed by the rioters but also assigned fault to corrections officials for fostering a “culture of negativity” and failing to fulfill their “core” duty of reducing high rates of recidivism.

Prison Legal News has covered dysfunctional management at Vaughn, where the staffing levels are not only inadequate – prisoners outnumber guards 75 to one – but employees also are poorly trained, threatening the safety of both prisoners and guards. [See: PLN, March 2017, p.30].

Governor John Carney, who took office two weeks before the riot, tapped former U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III and retired judge William Chapman to oversee the preparation of the post-riot report, with assistance from the Police Foundation.

They concluded that Vaughn was racked by an “institutionalized culture of negativity,” with not only prisoners but also guards and administrators viewing each other as “adversaries.” Rules were “inconsistently implemented,” the grievance process for prisoners was “deemed unfair,” and medical and mental health care was “distrusted,” creating “adverse working conditions” for staff members, who suffered “a real lack of morale.”

The report emphasized the importance of recognizing that most of today’s prisoners will be tomorrow’s neighbors, and warned that the failure to acknowledge that fact not only makes the prison environment more dangerous but also makes communities “less safe once offenders subjected to these conditions are released.”

The riot at Vaughn began the morning of February 1, 2017, when prisoners in Building C took hostages, including other prisoners, counselor Patricia May and Lt. Floyd. Early the next morning, officers broke through a wall with a backhoe to end the standoff, freeing the other guards, May and the rest of the approximately 120 prisoners in the building. Floyd’s body was then found; a sergeant at the time, he was posthumously promoted to lieutenant.

In addition to his death, the riot also resulted in injuries to guards Winslow Smith and Joshua Wilkinson; according to news reports, May “had been protected by some inmates” while she was held hostage. Of the 18 indicted prisoners, 11 are already serving sentences for murder or manslaughter and four are serving life sentences. All 18 were transferred to other facilities after the riot was quelled.

The rest of the prisoners in Building C – which provided transitional housing for all levels of offenders – were transferred to other facilities or segregated housing. Their testimony will likely prove crucial in the trials of those who were indicted, since Vaughn had no security cameras.

Lt. Floyd’s widow, Saundra Floyd, filed a lawsuit against the state in August 2017, blaming the riot on “compromising” and “deceptive” prison policies. Expressing extreme disappointment with Delaware officials, including Governor Carney, she argued the state and prison officials had failed to implement recommendations of a 2005 task force related to enhanced training, supervision and video surveillance. In December 2017, the state agreed to settle her suit for $7.55 million. See: Floyd v. Department of Correction, U.S.D.C. (D. Del.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00431-RGA.

Prisoners interviewed by the Wilmington News Journal after the uprising said pleas for better programming and health care at Vaughn – including substance abuse treatment – had been ignored. State officials indicated that additional funds had finally been allocated for additional guards, training and equipment.

However, as of January 2018 there were 100 fewer guards employed at the prison than before the riot – a level of staffing deemed “catastrophic” by Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware.

Still, Warden Dana Metzger, who began his career as an administrator in military prisons before assuming the top spot at Vaughn in mid-2017, was optimistic that he could create a culture of “listening” to help the facility implement recommendations of a task force appointed by Governor Carney after the Police Foundation report was released.

“None of it is going to get done,” he noted, “if we don’t establish those bonds between us and everybody else.”

Claire DeMatteis, who served as senior counsel to Joe Biden when the former Vice-President was the state’s senior senator, led the task force. She pointed to several of its 41 recommendations that have been implemented, such as the restoration of a GED program that prisoners had long requested.

“What I’ve seen in six months is steady progress,” she said, while acknowledging there were still “staff vacancies that we have to fill.”

Prisoner Andre Peters, who has served eight years of a 30-year term for robbery, praised reforms at Vaughn, saying “the atmosphere has changed.” A member of the Inmate Advisory Council, he was happy when complaints of canceled visits due to staff shortages were met with a willingness on the part of guards to forego gym time so visits could go on as scheduled.

“[Warden Metzger] listens to you. He’ll talk to you,” Peters said. “It does seem like he’s trying to build a relationship with us.” 



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Related legal case

Floyd v. Department of Correction