James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware. Photo by trconrad2001 on Flickr
In the weeks since prisoners took hostages and a corrections officer was killed in an uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the Delaware Department of Corrections has dismissed and ignored prisoners’ demands. State lawmakers, union officials, and others have largely done the same.
Staff shortages are now the primary explanation for how the uprising took place and cost an officer his life. Staffing and pay increases are being debated accordingly, while officials vow to prevent future uprisings by increasing security at the already-restrictive maximum security facility.
Vaughn does have issues with security and some of those issues are related to staffing. But incarcerated people and their advocates see this interpretation of the uprising as too narrow.
Kim Wilson has two sons at Vaughn serving life sentences, who describe conditions there as “nothing short of horrendous.”
“Prison officials have spoken of the safety of staff but they haven’t said much of anything about the safety of the incarcerated,” Wilson told Shadowproof. “That’s the core of the problem right there.”
Safety And Demands
The starting salary for corrections officers in the state is around $32,059, with a maximum of $43,147—pay rates which do not attract experienced officers and which fail to keep officers at their jobs. Turnover is high and positions are left vacant.
The department frequently turns to its pool of rookies who have recently graduated the academy, but their lack of experience can translate into abuse and mistreatment for the incarcerated.
Officers are forced to work long overtime hours because of staffing shortages, which also leave them outnumbered. It becomes impossible to protect both prisoners and staff from violence. Other services, such as meals, medication, and recreation, can be delayed or missed. This produces stress and animosity on both sides.
The exodus of more than two dozen staff members since the uprising is unlikely to help. At least 25 corrections officers have resigned or retired from the department. Over a dozen of these staff worked at Vaughn. In addition, twenty nine medical staff, who work for a contractor hired by the DOC, have resigned. Vaughn’s warden is on paid administrative leave, without a public explanation.
Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware union, said the department doesn’t have enough staff and “people don’t feel safe coming to work.”
Prison officials have responded by saying they may shut down more programs and cut visitation hours to compensate for understaffing. The state legislature made proposals to raise pay and staffing levels, but has yet to propose any remedies for the prisoners.
State Representative Melanie George Smith, who chairs the Joint Finance Committee, said the legislature is “not going to be funding anything that is an issue that is arising out of the inmates’ demands.”
Those demands include access to education and rehabilitation programs, correct status sheets (which detail a prisoner’s sentence), and transparency about how money is allocated for the prison’s budget.
Addressing these demands “is the same thing as negotiating with terrorists,” Rep. Smith told The News Journal. “It would reward people for killing a good man, a father, a correctional officer.”
It may serve the short term political interests of lawmakers and prison officials to cast this uprising as an isolated incident, which can be resolved by hiring more officers and increasing security. But in the long run, it is a counterproductive strategy that could make prisoners and staff less safe for failing to appreciate the relationship between quality of life and the safety of a facility.
As one former prisoner said, “If [the Department of Correction] is worried about the officers and not [prisoners’] demands, if nothing changes, I guarantee there will be another hostage situation in a different building.”
Kim Wilson said the uprising reflects decades of people complaining and suing over conditions at the prison.
“It’s the same thing and nothing has changed,” she said. “[The corrections department] never takes it seriously.”
Vaughn On Lockdown
A closer look at the treatment of prisoners post-uprising provides insight into officials’ posture and response to date. Wilson’s sons were not in Building C when the uprising occurred, but she shared some of the things she learned from the community network of families, friends, and loved ones, that exists on the outside.
People were beaten, bones broken and bodies bruised, after law enforcement bulldozed through a barricade of footlockers to retake the dorm. There was little-to-no medical treatment provided to those in need. Some people were unable to get their diabetes medications.
Housing units were occupied by “response teams” of officers clad in riot gear. Cells were searched and property was confiscated, destroyed, and strewn about as officials combed for contraband and potential evidence. One mother told Wilson of strip searches, in which the incarcerated had to stand naked and face taunting officers for hours.
Prisoners said they were not provided with clean uniforms and showers during lockdown. Some said they were denied bathroom access for over 7 hours, defecating and urinating in plastic bags in their cells.
Food was served cold and portions were withheld. Access to the commissary, which prisoners use to purchase food, hygiene, and other necessary products, was suspended.
Wilson is particularly struck by the obstacles prisoners face in staying fed. They are barely given fresh fruit and vegetables, she said. Portions are small and sometimes withheld arbitrarily by staff.
Staying fed in this situation may require the help of a supporter on the outside. This is not an option for everyone. If they have someone outside, that person may be put in a position to deposit money for the commissary to help an incarcerated person supplement their meager portions.
The prisoner can receive money orders on the day of a visit or through the mail, Wilson explained. This requires a trip to a store or post office that sells money orders, as well as money to cover fees associated with sending them. This is the first obstacle, as it diminishes the amount of money one can send and not everyone has access to transportation.
“The more difficult you make it to send money the less likely people are to do it,” Wilson observed.
Once a money order is sent to a prisoner, it has to be screened before it can arrive at the business office. From there, the money order is entered into the system and the prisoner will get a receipt indicating the money is in their account. This process takes several days, and the prison doesn’t process money orders on weekends and holidays, posing another obstacle.
“[It takes less time] if you take the money order with you to your visit. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible for many people,” Wilson said.
From there, prisoners have to submit a list of goods they want to purchase from the commissary before a cut-off date. However, they’re not guaranteed to get those items because “commissary service eliminates items without notice and prison officials may choose to remove items from the offerings.”
“Say you order 12 ramen soups, 8 granola bars, 3 bars of soap and 2 razors—post rebellion—you may get half of that list,” she said.
At the same time, the incarcerated are not allowed to stockpile food. This situation puts men in the position to hide food, barter, and more.
“But what can you do if you don’t have enough food and you have to wait a week to go to commissary?” Wilson asked.
“Stamps and paper are hot commodities because the prison limits how many of these each incarcerated person can have on hand,” she offered as another example. “Never mind if they’d like to write often or have a wide circle of friends, etc.”
Other personal items for purchase at the commissary are overpriced and poorly made. Wilson said she has had to replace countless radios, which break easily.
“It may not seem like a serious problem,” she said, “but it speaks to what they endure on a daily basis.”
Meanwhile, the grievance system, which is supposed to provide prisoners with an avenue for redress, is a particular source of frustration. Officers who review grievances are sometimes the same officers accused of the misconduct they detail. Decisions are unfair and appeals are often ignored.
The indignities can eventually boil over into uprisings. But Wilson fears it is likely prison officials will “sweep it under the rug” after investigations have closed and task forces have published their reports, as has been the case in the past.
“This is not something that started on February 1,” Wilson reiterated. “This is longstanding. Ongoing. And nothing has changed. It shows a lack of compassion and empathy.”
Overcoming Official Silence
When asked how the support network formed and how people on the outside found each other, Wilson pointed out certain communities are the target of law enforcement for generations.
People may be locked up alongside relatives, friends, and schoolmates, or know someone who has been incarcerated. She noted some of her sons’ friends from middle school and high school are locked up with them.
“It’s mind-boggling how many people they know” on the inside, she said.
Corrections departments are traditionally tight-lipped, providing little information or assistance to those on the outside inquiring about those on the inside. This is even more true after an uprising.
Wilson said their network provides essential lines of communication, allowing people to share information about what’s going on in the prison.
“Getting information from prison officials is not just difficult. It’s simply not happening,” Wilson said, adding people with loved ones in Building C, where the uprising occurred, had not heard from them. It is a “lifeline” that can calm fears and provide “a tiny bit of ease in a very difficult time.”
The network provides “a way to have community and a way to survive,” Wilson said. “It’s comforting because we know we are not alone.”
The Warden’s office won’t provide anyone with information, she said, but she was thankful she’s been able to keep in contact with her sons.
The Delaware Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment by publication.