Delaware Public Media

Family of slain correctional officer, others, file suit against state

Apr 18, 2017

The family of a slain correctional officer and other prison guards are blaming two former governors and other state officials for conditions that lead to February’s hostage standoff at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.

That’s according to a federal civil lawsuit filed Tuesday by the family of Steven Floyd, who died during the 18-hour riot, correctional officers Winslow Smith, Joshua Wilkinson, and Corporals Owen Hammond, Matthew McCall and Justin Tuxward.

Represented by Thomas Neuberger, the group alleges former governors Ruth Ann Minner, Jack Markell and a handful of their cabinet officials ignored low staffing levels and basic security measures raised by prior reviews.

The suit also claims Gov. John Carney (D) blocked a rescue attempt about an hour after the crisis began and waited until early the next morning — nearly 18 hours later — to rush the building with law enforcement. 

Carney isn't named as a defendant in the lawsuit and rejects any such allegations, noting hostage negotiations were conducted by the Department of Correction and Delaware State Police.

"The Governor trusted his law enforcement team on the ground to make decisions on how best to respond throughout the incident," said Jonathan Starkey, a Carney spokesman, in a statement. "Those decisions led to the rescue of three correctional employees."

A 2004 rape and attempted murder of a counselor prompted an independent investigation that called for the state to hire more officers, limit overtime and implement better staff training.

But the complaint argues both governors and their staff ignored those recommendations and conditions worsened to the point of sparking the February riot at Vaughn Correctional Center.

Thomas Crumplar, another lawyer representing the group, says poor budget conditions – even during a historical financial crisis – don’t leave officials blameless.

“These people were involved in protecting us and they were not given the tools, and certainly, I think, any citizen is going to say the last place that you should cut is basic protection,” Crumplar said.

Delaware’s overtime budget for correctional officers swelled from $8 million in 2004 to $23 million a year during the Markell Administration, according to the suit.

The complaint claims overtime hours made up almost 40 percent of staffing at Delaware correctional centers in early 2017.

They also say the department stopped training officers to search prisoners for dangerous weapons because they didn’t have enough staff to perform them – leaving staff vulnerable to attacks.

Following the hostage crisis, Carney (D) ordered an independent review of the Vaughn standoff, saying in a recent address to state lawmakers that it won’t be “a report that collects dust on a shelf.”

“…we will make real improvements and we will make them quickly,” Carney said.

In his budget proposal, he also called on state lawmakers to hire 75 new correctional officers and boost their salaries, which are subject to union negotiations.

But Neuberger says he “has absolutely no hope” that such a review will amount to significant changes.

“They will conclude that the prisons are understaffed, they will conclude again that you’ve got to stop forcing these men to work 16-hour shifts, they’ll conclude that searches weren’t being done for weapons and we expect that the governor will ignore it,” he said.

The suit outlines the hostages’ experiences, saying they were brutally beaten over every part of their bodies, handcuffed, and in some cases, locked in a maintenance closet during the 18-hour ordeal.

Hammond, McCall and Tuxward had been working on boilers in the basement of Building C during the beginning of the riot.

Once they had finished and returned upstairs, they found the building overrun by inmates and quickly retreated to the basement after trying unsuccessfully to free Floyd from a closet.

Floyd warned fellow correctional officers outside the building to avoid a “trap” and was later tortured by the inmates, according to the complaint.

It’s still unclear how Floyd died and the suit demands a federal judge allow his family access to an unreleased autopsy report.

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for all involved.

None of defendants immediately returned requests for comment.

A criminal investigation involving all 120 inmates in Building C remains ongoing.