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One Year After Vaughn Prison Uprising, Demands Still Unaddressed

One year ago, people incarcerated in Building C at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware, engaged in an uprising after suffering years of abuse and inhumane living conditions.

In a letter circulated after the rebellion, prisoners explained they took on enormous risk to make demands including basic human rights, a very small increase in pay for their mandatory labor, access to education and rehabilitation opportunities, basic medical care, and less antagonism and violence from guards.

“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,” the letter stated. “It was not sparked by any one event, but by a series of events, that with time began to slowly boil over.”

“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.”

Corrections officers responded by bulldozing barricades erected by prisoners during the 20-hour uprising. Several officers had been taken hostage. One officer died.

Prisoners were beaten following the uprising. They were denied medical care, food, and access to programs and services. Communication with those on the outside was restricted. Some prisoners were transferred in silence to other facilities and others were detained in solitary confinement.

Delaware Governor John Carney ordered an independent review [PDF] of the uprising, which documented many of the problems and concerns inmates expressed for years only to be ignored or dismissed. It found the facility was overcrowded, there wasn’t enough staff, and employees were working too much overtime.

Facility management policies and procedures were inconsistent. There was a lack of communication and increasing hostility between inmates and officers including “the use of shaming tactics and verbal and physical abuse at the hands of some correctional officers.”

A lack of programming, training, education, and rehabilitation for inmates left many idle and hopeless. A broken grievance system left them without a legitimate means to address their complaints. There was insufficient medical care to meet the level of need on the inside. In summation, there was little-to-no basic human dignity afforded to people incarcerated at Vaughn.

“Left unattended,” the report concluded, “these issues will continue to provide a fertile ground for violent incidents in the JTVCC.”

The corrections department and officers’ union wasted no time calling for increased staff and salaries and greater investments in security and technology for the department.

Carney’s latest budget proposal calls for increasing the starting salaries of state corrections officers to try and attract more recruits and reduce turnover.

Highlighting his “historic investments” in the DOC during his “State of the State” address last month, he declared:

Nowhere have we made more investments in our state employees than in the DOC. Fifteen days into my administration, the hostage incident at James T. Vaughn (Correctional Center) took the life of Lt. Steven Floyd and stole a sense of security from the thousands of correctional officers who work throughout our system. We have been working every day since February 2nd to make our prisons safer and to address the conditions that contributed to that terrible tragedy. Based on the Independent Review Team’s recommendations, we reached an agreement to increase salaries for Delaware’s correctional officers. We have implemented significant investments in equipment, recruitment, technology and training at the DOC and we’re installing cameras at James T. Vaughn and other correctional facilities as we speak.

While state officials have moved slower than perhaps the DOC and officers union would like, state officials have been largely responsive and sympathetic to their needs—especially when compared to their response to prisoners.

An “inmate advisory council” is the DOC’s biggest reform concession for incarcerated people. It meets monthly to “build a bridge of communication” with prison staff.

But the problems go well beyond communication, and for the most part, the demands that motivated the uprising have been ignored.

The DOC claims it put more emphasis on services for the incarcerated after the uprising, but the Associated Press reported “performance measures included in a department budget request in November suggested halving the number of participants in several treatment programs — including those for sex offenders and substance abusers — as well as in religious and other activities that serve as alternatives to violence.” Governor Carney’s budget proposal reversed this reduction but did not increase the participation numbers.

In the state legislature, one lawmaker said they will not fund “anything that is an issue that is arising out of the inmates’ demands.” Another said addressing prisoner demands is “the same thing as negotiating with terrorists,” telling reporters it would “reward people for killing a good man, a father, a correctional officer.”

It is in this atmosphere that state prosecutors indicated they may seek the death penalty for some involved in the rebellion, even though Delaware does not currently allow capital punishment.

The public defender’s office recently said it would request $600,000 more for its budget because it does not have enough money to defend the 18 inmates facing criminal charges for the Vaughn uprising, 16 of whom face first-degree murder charges.

Incarcerated people are still in solitary confinement one year after the uprising, and some say voices at Vaughn are still not being heard. Prisoners and their friends, families, and advocates say people inside face ongoing retaliation and mistreatment, and the situation at Vaughn remains potentially explosive.

“No one wants for this type of incident to happen again,” the prisoners at Vaughn wrote in their demand letter. “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,” they concluded. “What we want is fairness, impartiality, transparency, and humane treatment.”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.