The family of a correctional officer who died during a prison hostage incident in Smyrna, and five other officer hostages, have filed a federal lawsuit against former Govs. Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, and other state officials.
The plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a jury trial, following an inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn correctional center in February that left Lt. Steven Floyd dead.
Their attorneys allege poor oversight under the former Democratic governors, and other leaders in the Department of Correction and in the Office of Management and Budget, led to the deadly standoff.
“This was all the direct fault of two governors who were derelict in their duties to protect those who are working within our system to keep us safe,” said attorney Tom Neuberger.
Lt. Floyd and several other hostages suffered 18 hours of brutal torture, before SWAT teams were able to enter the building, where they found Floyd’s body, according to the complaint.
Neuberger calls Floyd the “epitome of a public servant,” who had been named Correctional Officer of the Year and at one time even rescued an inmate attempting suicide.
Floyd’s widow and three adult children seek monetary compensation for his death and suffering, while the five other officers seek damages for physical, emotional and mental injuries, and additional economic losses, including lost wages, benefits and decreased earning capacity.
Attorney Thomas Crumplar said his clients now suffer from PTSD, flashbacks, repeat nightmares and anxiety, and have been robbed of unalienable rights.
“The defendants here, including Govs. Markell and Minner, not only failed to secure these rights, but their actions of 16 years have deprived Lt. Floyd of his life, and deprived his family of their pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Their actions have deprived [the other hostages] of their liberty, and the injuries they’ve suffered will permanently affect their pursuit of happiness.”
The attorneys say for 16 years, requests to install more security cameras and hire more staff were denied, even after recommendations to do so were made following the rape of a counselor at the prison in 2004. Instead, they say the state spent $23 million dollars a year on overtime shifts, forcing officers to work 16 hours a day, in order to save the cost of hiring more staff.
The attorneys allege these policies created an unsafe working environment for officers—and were hidden from the General Assembly.
“It was a death trap,” Crumplar said. “A trap that killed Lt. Floyd, and but for his heroic efforts, and the efforts of [the other officers], would have killed many more people.”
Searching for weapons also was decreased from once a day to once a month due to budget cuts, he said.
“It is almost axiomatic prisons are a dangerous place, and prisoners are always creating handmade weapons,” Crumplar said. “You can’t go through an airport without being searched. You’d think searching prisoners for weapons would be a daily occurrence at a prison.”
He also said the building where the hostage incident took place was not equipped with security cameras.
“None of us can walk into a Target, a Walmart, a Johnnies Dog House, without seeing security cameras,” Crumplar said. “But in the very building Lt. Floyd lost his life, that these gentleman suffered periods of torture and imprisonment, how many cameras do you think they were in that building? Zero.”
The attorneys also said Carney has refused to turn over Floyd’s autopsy to the family.
Rev. Christopher Bullock, who leads the Delaware Coalition for Prison Reform and Justice, said he believes the lawsuit is right on point.
He said he believes Delaware politicians haven’t done enough to effect change, and said he hopes the lawsuit, alongside his advocacy work, will spark a movement.
“The people in the community, family members who’ve been incarcerated, family members of correctional officers, are demanding change. This is beyond politics. This is about peoples' lives and principals that matter,” Bullock said.
“We need legislative change, we need bold leaders regardless of party. We need legislators to step up, not because you’re looking for reelection, but because you’re looking for the right thing to do.”
Carney's fiscal year 2018 budget proposal takes steps to address concerns about low staffing and salaries at Delaware’s correctional institutions. He proposes $4.7 million to increase hazardous pay for correctional officers, $2.3 million for 75 new officers at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution and $1.3 million for new equipment and training. Correctional officers' salaries also would increase to more than $37,000.
There’s an ongoing criminal investigation into the hostage incident, the DOC is launching an internal review and the Governor has called for an independent investigation.
A spokesperson for DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps said he cannot comment on pending litigation, but that he’s working with Governor John Carney and the General Assembly to improve safety and security.
WHYY contacted Jack Markell and Ruth Ann Minner, but there was no response.
Neuberger said he has “absolutely no hope” for the independent investigation Carney has launched.
“I think the two distinguished judges will do a good job, they will list what has to be done, they will conclude the prisons are understaffed, they will conclude again, ‘You have to stop forcing these men to work 16-hour shifts,’ they’ll conclude searches weren’t being done for weapons, and we suspect the Governor will ignore it,” he said.
“Maybe the General Assembly will step in and assert its prerogative and force the Governor to make these institutions safe for those who are working in them, but I expect nothing to be done.”
Bullock’s group also has asked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to launch an investigation into prison conditions.
“We don’t believe the state can investigate itself, it will yield nothing but the Delaware way—it will be no incremental change, no substantive change, it will be a report that will go on file and collect dust,” Bullock said.
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