Delaware Public Media

Civil rights leaders want federal investigation into prison standoff

Feb 7, 2017

Current and former lawmakers are banding together with clergy, calling for an independent civil rights investigation into conditions across state prisons.

During a press conference Tuesday, the group pointed to chronic understaffing and low wages for prison guards as partly to blame for last week’s 19-hour standoff at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna that ended in the death of Sgt. Steven Floyd.

But they say overcrowding and a lack of adequate training for correctional officers are also factors.

“Warehousing human beings in a cage must come to an end,” said Rev. Christopher Bullock, former New Castle County Council President and chair of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice.

“Men and women sleeping on top of each other like human file cabinets and sardines reminds me of the slave ships,” Bullock said.

“We ain’t dealing with dogs and pigs and animals and stuff. We’re dealing with human beings,” said Richard “Mouse” Smith, past state president of Delaware’s NAACP chapter.

Inadequate education of students from impoverished backgrounds also plays a role, according to the group.

“There, in my view, is a direct correlation in our inability to educate our children and the rate of incarceration that we have today. It’s not happenstance, it’s not accidental,” said New Castle County Councilman Jea Street, a frequent and harsh critic of the General Assembly.

Though the state promised a thorough investigation, the coalition fears a “cover up” or the publishing of another report that gathers dust on a shelf.

Since 2004, Street called on the state to investigate reports of racial discrimination in the Christina School District.

In 2012, the federal Department of Education released a report that found black students were disciplined “more harshly and more frequently” than white students at all levels of the district.

Delaware’s Department of Correction has also faced legal battles in recent years over its practices.

The agency settled a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and others last September over its strict solitary confinement policies.

An agreement outlined a long list of required changes, including expanding mental health services and staff, cutting the number of days prison officials can use solitary as punishment and quintupling the amount of out-of-cell recreation time, among others.

So far, the coalition hasn’t spoken with Gov. John Carney (D), who made criminal justice reform one of the pillars of his election platform last year.

“Running a campaign is one thing, but governing is another. We hope he will take that seriously,” Bullock said.

Carney announced he will launch an independent review of the hostage situation following the ongoing criminal investigation to uncover the underlying and immediate causes of the standoff.

"We will find out how this happened, and work together with all parties involved to prevent this type of incident from happening again," Carney said in a statement.

Details surrounding the scope of the investigation and who will spearhead it will be announced by Feb. 15.

Despite that, the coalition will still seek federal involvement, saying in a statement, "The 'Delaware Way' will not suffice this time."

The standoff at Vaughn Correctional Center began Wednesday morning when inmates armed with “sharp instruments” rushed and held hostage three prison guards and a counselor.

Over the next 19 hours, the 120 suspected prisoners released two officers in exchange for access to phones and a water supply.

Early Thursday morning, state police and others broke down the door to C Building with a backhoe to find Floyd dead and the counselor alive, ending the standoff.

Law enforcement ruled Floyd’s death a homicide by “trauma” but declined to identify specifics, citing an ongoing investigation.