What to Know
- A corrections officer was killed in a Feb. 2017 inmate uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware.
- The report notes that the state spent nearly $31 million on officer overtime in the last fiscal year for "essential public safety expenses."
- One of the staffers who was taken hostage blames prison officials for ignoring warning signs before the riot.
Delaware officials are touting progress in prison reform efforts following a deadly inmate riot last year, but they acknowledge that reducing mandatory overtime for correctional officers at the state's understaffed maximum-security prison remains a challenge.
Officials released a final report Tuesday updating progress in responding to 41 recommendations contained in an independent review ordered by Democratic Gov. John Carney after the February 2017 uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.
Correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed during the riot, and three other DOC staffers were taken hostage. The report comes just days after one of the staffers who was taken hostage blamed prison officials for ignoring warning signs before the riot.
The Department of Correction has implemented and "measurably addressed" 40 of the recommendations, according to the report by Claire DeMatteis, a lawyer hired as a special assistant by Carney to oversee the reform efforts.
"The one recommendation that requires continued focus and substantive action is the recommendation to reduce mandatory overtime," DeMatteis wrote.
The report notes that the state spent nearly $31 million on officer overtime in the fiscal year that ended June 30, which the report describes as "an essential public safety expense."
Currently, there are 227 correctional officer vacancies in Delaware's prisons, including 98 at Vaughn. A recently completed staffing analysis recommends an additional 137 correctional officer positions at the Smyrna prison.
The report suggests that enhanced recruiting efforts could take another 18 to 24 months to yield results, and that administrators are seeking interim solutions to reduce the number of overtime shifts required to operate the prison safely.
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Meanwhile, the report notes that correctional officers continue to express concerns not just about understaffing and overtime, but also about improving communications within the chain of command and the need to rebuild trust.
Overall, according to the report, Carney and lawmakers have committed $62 million to the corrections department since the riot to strengthen officer training and safety, enhance recruitment and retention, modernize operations, and improve inmate programs and services.
In an interview, Patricia May, who was a counselor at the prison, blamed prison officials for ignoring warnings that trouble was brewing at the prison.
She said she had a feeling of dread when she reported to work on the day of the riot. As she walked to her office on Feb. 1, 2017, the veteran Department of Correction counselor said she voiced her concerns to a colleague.
"I was expressing my apprehension, my anguish, my anger, my concern," May told The Associated Press on Friday, in her first public interview since last year's deadly prison riot. "I thought I was going to get killed in there."
"It was common knowledge that the riot was going to come about," she added. "We just didn't know when."
Just a few minutes after May expressed her fears, inmates staged the violent uprising in which Floyd was killed, two others were beaten and tormented, and May was held hostage for almost 20 hours before tactical teams were finally able to breach a wall with a backhoe and rescue her. Three other staffers were rescued after hiding in a basement before climbing onto a roof.
May, who retired in March, blames prison leadership.
"They knew it was going to happen. They did nothing," she said. "When they put me in that building, they knew they were putting me in a dangerous situation."
May, 68, was included in a $7.55 million settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Floyd's relatives and six Department of Correction staffers. In settling the lawsuit, state officials did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
But an independent review ordered by Gov. Carney after the riot found that prison administrators dismissed warnings, including Floyd's plea to move some inmates to another building for security reasons. The dismissal of the warnings was indicative of an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity, and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates, investigators found.
The independent review team that made recommendations after the riot never spoke to May.
"I'm just ticked off that nobody talked to me," said May, who did arrange a meeting with DeMatteis.
"I greatly respect Ms. May's service and the trauma she experienced," DeMatteis said in an email Tuesday.
May, who holds a degree in criminology and worked the streets as a probation and parole officer for almost a decade before becoming a counselor, says inmates in the Delaware prison are sorely in need of better conditions, counseling and programs to help them rehabilitate. She said the state is jailing prisoners for "way too long" and that corrections officials "are antiquated in our thinking about treatment."
"They have to take these reforms seriously," she said. "If you take all their (inmates') hope away, what do they have left?"