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Following Vaughn Rebellion, Prisoners Issue List Of Demands For Reforms

Prisoners at Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Center wrote an open letter to the warden and department of corrections, which includes a list of 22 requests addressing various problems at the facility.

The list expands upon demands made in February, when men in the housing unit, Building C, launched an uprising that lasted over eighteen hours, in which hostages were taken and one corrections officer was killed.

Those demands included better education and rehabilitation programs, more respectful and less abusive staff, and status sheets, which accurately detailed sentences. Prisoners also expressed concern over the tough-on-crime rhetoric that accompanied Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency and what it could mean for conditions at their prison.

The letter was written by a prisoner at Vaughn, who will remain anonymous over concerns of retaliation.

“What happened in C-Building was both tragic and inevitable,” the letter begins. “Only those who were blind or naïve can claim that they did not see that incident coming. It was not sparked by any one event, but by a series of events, that with time began to slowly boil over.”

Prisoners had to “take matters into [their] own hands” after “attempts at diplomacy were ignored” and “pleas for help fell on deaf ears,” the letter contends.

“No one wants for this type of incident to happen again. No one wanted this to happen in the first place. We all have a duty and a moral obligation to insure that what occurred never occurs again. To do that, we must first realistically address the issues that brought us to this point.”

Acknowledging that “when we are incarcerated, we lose certain “civil” rights,” the letter argues, “what we do not lose and what should not be taken away from us are our “human” rights. Under no circumstances should we be treated as less than human beings, nor shall we be expected to settle for such treatment.”

“We do not want the keys to the prison,” the letter concludes. “What we want is fairness, impartiality, transparency, and humane treatment.” It is followed by a list of 22 requests they say will help prison officials “in your goal of making this a safer, more secure, and more humane prison.”

The first demand is for human rights. “Everything on this list can be placed under this one category,” according to the letter. “We want human rights, decent treatment, respect as men, and to be treated fairly.”

It is followed by demands to be properly fed, for better rehabilitative and educational programming for all prisoners, and for more visitation opportunities.

Men incarcerated at Vaughn demand their pay be increased to $5 a month. “It is still slave labor, but this will at least allow even the lowest paying job to get more than 24 soups, 2 bars of soap, and a writing tablet a month,” the letter indicates, and request overtime in the form of time-and-a-half, “equal to that in the real world.”

The letter calls for changes to the disciplinary system, which it describes as “old and outdated.” It demands the replacement of a lieutenant who runs the hearings, who allegedly is incapable of providing fair and impartial proceedings. It further proposes revisions to the grievance system, which is similarly incapable of providing fair and impartial consideration of prisoners’ complaints.

There is also a call for transparency from the department of corrections so prisoners know how money allocated to the prison and earned in commissary is spent. “We believe that we have a right to know these things,” they write. “This issue is highly important to us.”

Another request is that “abuse, mistreatment, and punishment of individuals seeking mental health treatment needs to stop,” including withholding medication as punishment.

The letter demands the appointment of a new commissioner, warden, and deputy warden, who they see as complicit in many of their problems. They ask that staff be rotated to new buildings and new duties every three to six months, which they say “allows us all a chance to have a break from each other and to give any possible tensions a chance to cool down before they boil over.”

It requests the provision provide commissary stock “stingers,” which are devices prisoners use to heat water in their cells. If not, the prison should increase the temperature of hot water in all the cells so food can be cooked and coffee can be heated.

Hygiene and shaving supplies and supplies to clean cells are demanded. So, too, is the ability to receive packages from vendors a few times a year so prisoners can obtain essential food and clothing supplies, as is common in many other facilities.

The men at Vaughn also want an increase of earned good time credits and for all inmates to receive credits for participating in work, school, or programming, regardless of their security classification status. They ask for the recreation schedule to go back to the “pre-riot” schedule for all buildings, and they want access to the library.

The list of demands concludes with a request for an independent investigation into “post-riot actions on the part of staff” and for the reassignment and transfer of staff, “who have an extensive history of abusing and mistreating prisoners.”

These requests line up with other accounts provided by those with loved ones inside Vaughn. They echo the view that the uprising was not an isolated incident but rather the product of years of festering problems that eventually boiled over.

Importantly, these requests show that simply addressing understaffing, as has been the sole focus of Delaware politicians and prison officials in the riot’s aftermath, and dismissing incarcerated voices will not prevent another uprising from happening.

The following is the text of the letter obtained by Shadowproof. We redacted the name of the incarcerated person, who authored the letter, in an effort to avoid retaliation against them.


What happened in C-Building was both tragic and inevitable. Only those who were blind or naïve can claim that they did not see that incident coming. It was not sparked by any one event, but by a series of events, that with time began to slowly boil over.

Due to the conditions of this prison and the treatment of those held within it, it was only a matter of time before we (as I stand in solidarity with them) were forced to take actions into our own hands. Our attempts at diplomacy were ignored, our pleas for help fell on deaf ears. There was no other way for you to know our struggle, for you to acknowledge our plight. What had to be done was done.

No one wants for this type of incident to happen again. No one wanted this to happen in the first place. We all have a duty and a moral obligation to insure that what occurred never occurs again. To do that we must first realistically address the issues that brought us to this point.

We, as inmates, know that when we are incarcerated, we lose certain “civil” rights. What we do not lose and what should not be taken away from us are our “human” rights. Under no circumstances should we be treated as less than human beings, nor shall we be expected to settle for such treatment.

We do not want the keys to the prison. What we want is fairness, impartiality, transparency, and humane treatment. Below you will find a list of our fair requests that will help you all in your goal of making this a safer, more secure, and more humane prison. I hope that you consider all of these points sincerely.

On behalf of my brothers in the struggle.

In struggle and solidarity,

[Redacted]

 

For a Safer, More Secure, and More Humane Prison

On Behalf of the Prisoners at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center

March 8, 2017 – Smyrna, Delaware

Below you will find a list of our fair and reasonable requests that will help you in your goal of making the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center a safer, more secure, and more humane prison.

We hope that you consider all of these points sincerely.

We respectfully request:

  1. Human Rights. Everything on this list can be placed under this one category. We want human rights, decent treatment, respect as men, and to be treated fairly.
  1. Food. We would like to be properly fed and to receive bigger portions at all meals. We would like an end to the “heart healthy diet”[1]and for all foods to be removed from the menu when it is clear that the majority of prisoners do not eat it. The Delaware Department of Corrections throws away a ton of food on a daily basis. There is no reason that not only could our portions be bigger but that the prison could pass out seconds and thirds as well. We therefore request: 1) larger portions; 2) an end to the “heart healthy diet”; 3) “seconds and thirds call” at the chow hall until any food that would be thrown away is eaten, with each tier rotating on days to eat last; and 4) an end to using food as punishment by attempting to starve people into submission, especially in the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU).
  1. Access to Programs. There are extremely limited program options for the inmates in this prison, to the point that if you are not a drug addict or a sex offender there is really nothing for you. We want better programming opportunities for all prisoners. We also want an end to the sham practice of handing out “program packets” to the individuals housed in the SHU and Maximum Security (MAX). All prisoners should be afforded the opportunity to receive adequate programming. An area shall be set aside (such as the visiting room and Bldg. 20 holding cells for the inmates in MAX/SHU) for them to receive such programming from a counselor or other party approved to run such programs or groups.
  1. Education. Education should be afforded to allinmates no matter what their classification status. Even if it is provided through “In House Mail” courses for those inmates housed in the SHU/MAX. The Department of Corrections should hire the teachers needed to ensure that this gets done. Education, just like programming, should not be a privilege to be stripped away. It should be our right.
  1. Visits. The Delaware DOC should afford inmates with more opportunities to have visits with their families and loved ones and should eliminate hurdles placed in the way of our support groups who come to show us their love by visiting us. To do this, James T. Vaughn Correctional Center should: 1) offer visiting schedules equal to or greater than those offered at Sussex Correctional Institute (SCI); 2) Tear down the wall in the visiting room, which is there to cause not only a physical separation, but a psychological separation as well; and 3) allow inmates to hold the hands of their visitors above tables and to give longer hugs. Our family and loved ones are our greatest deterrent against both prison re-entry and prison misconduct, so why would you hinder us from having ample contact with them? JTVCC should follow SCI’s example in this department as they do a better job at running visits fairly and humanely.
  1. Better Pay. All inmates employed by JTVCC should be given a pay increase of at least 5 dollars a month. It is still slave labor, but this will at least allow even the lowest paying job to get more than 24 soups, 2 bars of soap, and a writing tablet a month. Inmate workers should also be paid “overtime” equal to that in the real world, which is “time and a half.”
  1. Fair and Impartial Disciplinary Hearings. The entire disciplinary process at JTVCC is old and outdated. Furthermore, it is widely known that Lt. Savage is incapable of conducting fair and impartial hearings. Not only should Lt. Savage be removed from this position, but the way hearings are conducted should be changed completely. We believe that disciplinary hearings should be conducted by a “board” of 3-5 DOC staff of the rank of Lieutenant or higher along, with 1 mental health clinician and 1 DOC Counselor. All parties should hear all of the evidence for and against the inmate and then make a joint decision with any dissenting opinions written down along with the majority’s ruling for the inmate. Appeals should also be run in the same manner, except that the board of DOC staff should have at least a rank of Staff Lieutenant, along with 1 Captain and the Warden or his/her designee.
  1. A Fair and Impartial Grievance Process. JTVCC has a hidden policy to hinder inmates from receiving remedies for issues and incidents that should be grievable, by deeming such grievances as “non-grievable” when filed or returning them “unprocessed.” This practice has to stop! Our grievance process is our only in-house recourse for a lot of issues and it should work smoothly. In order to do this:
    1. “Requests” should be allowed to be processed by the grievance office and should not be returned as “unprocessed.” Currently, any grievance that staff doesn’t want to go through is thrown out as a “request.” Deeming grievances “non-grievable“ or “unprocessed” due to them being “requests” is the most abused process in the JTVCC’s grievance policy.It actually even goes against the written language of the grievance since for remedies you are clearly asked “Action requested by grievant”. Your grievance should not be deemed non-grievable nor returned unprocessed simply because you make a “request”.  This has to stop.
    2. “Staff issues” should be grievable issues as well. The current policy of having inmates write the Staff Lt. or the Warden is a flawed policy since neither the Warden nor the Staff Lt. ever respond to such writings. Staff issues should be allowed to be grieved and any grievances against staff alleging “misuse of force” or “prisoner abuse” should be investigated by an Internal Affairs Officer. The DOC should hire the appropriate officers to ensure that this is done.
    3. All grievances alleging misuse of force or prisoner abuse should be deemed an “Emergency Grievance” and should be treated as such. You cannot expect safety and security for yourselves when we are being denied the same.
    4. Internal Affairs should keep officer files detailing allegations of misuse of force or prisoner abuse against inmates when alleged against said officer. These files shall include all such grievances against an officer, no matter the outcome of the grievance investigation. This is needed in order to show a pattern of abuse and excessive force. There are several officers who are widely known by both inmates and staff to regularly use excessive force and abuse inmates. These officers should be disciplined by the DOC when it is readily apparent that they have a pattern for such behavior.
  1. Transparency. Once a year, the DOC should publish a “pie-chart” in the prisoner newspaper detailing how the money allocated to the prison is being spent. It should also include a separate chart detailing how the money earned in commissary is being spent. We believe that we have a right to know these things. This issue is highly important to us.
  1. Mental Health. The abuse, mistreatment and punishment of individuals seeking mental health treatment needs to stop, along with the Mental Health Director Lezley Sexton’s allowance and support of such actions. Lezley Sexton and DOC’s policy of using medication as a punishment also needs to stop. The treatment of mental health prisoners and prisoners seeking mental health treatment in this prison has been nothing less than cruel and appalling! This has to stop.
  1. New Appointment of personnel. We are calling for the appointment of a new Commissioner, Warden and Deputy Warden.A lot of us watched this prison take a turn for the worse under the authority of the now acting Commissioner Perry Phelps. We believe that a lot of our in-house grievances began with his appointment as Warden. He is therefore unfit to change a system that he destroyed. To allow him to continue carrying on would be the equivalent of allowing a wolf to herd the sheep. Deputy Warden Scarborough should also be replaced. He is also a part of the problem, and indeed one of the main reasons, that inmates seeking mental health support are mistreated and punished. It is widely known that those are his personal policies. We also call for the ouster of the acting warden if he is unwilling to institute the fair changes listed herein, as such an unwillingness can only lead to more problems.
  1. Regular Rotation of Staff. We are asking that staff be rotated to new buildings and new duties every 3-6 months. This allows us all a chance to have a break from each other and to give any possible tensions a chance to cool down before they boil over. This will also allow the DOC the opportunity to “follow the paper trail” of certain Correctional Officers who have a pattern of mistreatment and abuse towards inmates and therefore will give the DOC the chance to place such staff on duties away from any prisoners before things get messy.
  1. “Stingers.” Stingers should be sold on commissary as they are in most other jails or boiling water should be provided to all inmates, including those housed in MAX/SHU, by increasing the temperature of the hot water in our cell/building sinks so that it is adequate enough to cook food and heat coffee. If “stingers” are not sold on commissary, then they should be reduced to a Class 2 Infraction.
  1. Access to shaving supplies. Inmates in all housing areas should be afforded razors twice a week in order to shave.There are many inmates in this prison who shave or need to shave regularly for religious and sanitary purposes. Those of us who choose to shave should be allowed to do so. This is a policy that was once allowed but was then stopped by then Warden Phelps. We should be allowed state-issued razors two times a week and better shaving razors should once again be sold on commissary. The DOC doesn’t stop double/triple celling inmates because the practice leads to fights, so they should not stop selling and providing razors because they lead to one or two people getting cut. Instead, those incidents should be dealt with on a case by case basis, not by acts of mass punishment. We want razors back for all inmates no matter their classification.
  1. Vendor Packages. At least two vendors should be allowed into the prison for the purpose of allowing inmates to purchase one 60-pound package a year ranging from food, electronics, sneakers, hygiene, etc. Inmates should also be allowed one 30-pound package consisting of only foodstuffs for the months of November and December. The DOC can approve different weights and allowable items for different classification levels. By allowing two vendors it will ensure that no one vendor can monopolize the market and hike the prices for inmates and their families.
  1. Cleaning Supplies. Inmates should not be denied cleaning supplies. There is no reason that DOC should not want first, a clean prison, and second, for the inmates to practice cleanliness.  However, DOC staff frequently deny inmates the material to properly clean the tier, the showers, and our cells. This needs to stop! Right now 18C tier is completely filthy. No one can remember the last time the showers have been cleaned. The tiers and cells are covered in filth and scum. Back on January 2, 2009, a nonviolent protest was staged on this issue alone. Since then nothing has changed. The showers on this tier should be deep cleaned no less than three times per week and inmates should be given full cleaning supplies at least three times per week consisting of: 1) a dust broom; 2) a toilet brush; 3) a sponge; 4) a cleaning rag; 5) a bucket; 6) soap balls; 7) Comet; 8) a mop; and 9) a mop bucket. These supplies should be readily available on alltiers.
  1. Goodtime. We would like an increase of earned goodtime credits from 5 days a month to 10 days a month. Additionally, all inmates should receive “goodtime” credits for participating in work, school, or programming no matter what their classification status.
  1. Recreation. We would like the “rec” schedule to go back to the “pre-riot” schedule for all buildings.
  1. Library. All inmates should be afforded access to the Library no matter their classification status.
  1. Indigent Supplies. All indigent supplies should also include lotion and deodorant.
  1. Investigation into post-riot actions on the part of staff. There should be a full investigation into the actions of DOC staff after the riot. This must include all of the alleged mistreatments and abuse/assaults of inmates during the mass shakedowns in buildings 23, W, etc. This investigation should be conducted by an independent organization outside of the DOC.
  1. Reassignments / Transfers of Staff. We request the transfer of or reassignment of duties for all the DOC staff listed below, who have an extensive history of abusing and mistreating prisoners.
    1. *Captian Wiley
    2. *Lt. Drace
    3. *Sgt. Payton
    4. *Sgt. Gill
    5. *Sgt. Beckles
    6. *Sgt. May
    7. *Sgt. Forkum
    8. *C/O Arabia
    9. Lt. Ratcliffe
    10. *Lt. Savage
    11. Lt. Wallace
    12. Sgt. Fredrick
    13. Cpl. Jensen
    14. *C/O Green (on the 8am4pm shift)
    15. *C/O Linsey
    16. *Sgt. Barromia (assigned to Bldg 18, on the 12am-8am shift)
    17. *Sgt. Chalice
    18. Sgt. Dejesus
    19. *Lt. Tyson
    20. Staff Lt. Reynolds

This list is not all encompassing. We picked the worst of the worst Correctional Officers (COs), some of whose actions cannot and will not be forgiven. These staff have stars next to their names. If they cannot be disciplined by the DOC, then we will be forced to once again take actions into our own hands. We will no longer settle for being kicked while we are down. This is your opportunity to prove to both your staff and to us inmates that you will not settle for the blatant abuse and mistreatment of any prisoner. Our lives matter as well.

We hope that you give a lot of thought to these 22 requests. These issues are all very important to us. Please feel free to take your time. We have patience, a lot of time, and most importantly nothing to lose.

On behalf of my brothers in the struggle,

[Redacted]

[1] Note: While a “heart healthy diet” may sound desirable to the larger public located outside of the prison walls, individuals incarcerated in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and beyond consistently report that the proportions associated with this “diet” as administered by the Department of Corrections leaves people underfed and hungry.

Photo by North Charlestone (northcharleston) on Flickr
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.