The killing of a guard during an inmate uprising at Delaware's largest prison this week was entirely preventable, according to a correctional officers' union leader who blamed state officials for ignoring chronic staffing shortages that put prison workers at greater risk.
Sgt. Steven Floyd, 47, was found dead early Thursday after a nearly 20-hour hostage standoff at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. On Friday, he was posthumously awarded a promotion to lieutenant and the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor.
Floyd was one of four staff members, including a female counselor, taken hostage Wednesday after inmates in a unit holding about 120 inmates ambushed him and forced him into a closet.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
Inmates released two hostages before a tactical team used a backhoe to breach the building and rescue the woman.
"If there had been a correct amount of staffing for a maximum-security building, the inmates would not have been able to overpower the officers, take control of the building and murder Sergeant Floyd," said Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware.
"Bottom line is, you cannot run daily operations of that building with three corrections officers safely," he said.
The problem is not unique to Delaware, observers say.
For years, many states have struggled to attract and retain correctional officers, largely because they are woefully underpaid, said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
"The correction officers are really the backbone of every prison ... if you don't have enough officers, really every aspect of prison operations breaks down," he said.
In some states, prisons are competing for workers with Wal-Mart and McDonald's, Fathi said. In Nebraska, the state prison has trouble keeping correctional officers because its county jails will pay them much more, he said.
Klopp who has worked for the Delaware Department of Correction for 29 years, says he makes about $49,000 annually. A rookie cop in the central Delaware town of Milford starts at $48,000, he said.
Authorities have said there are about 90 correctional officer vacancies within Delaware's prison system on any given day. That's almost double the 55 correctional officer vacancies reported in fiscal 2010, but less than half of the 260 vacancies in fiscal 2006, according to a Department of Correction annual report.
A department spokeswoman said Commissioner Perry Phelps would not comment on staffing until the investigation into this week's uprising is finished. But the department acknowledged in its most recent annual report that "workforce availability and eminent risk are intimately linked," and that current staffing levels reflect budgetary restrictions, not adherence to National Institute of Corrections recommended standards.
When correctional officer jobs remain vacant, prisons are short staffed for extended periods, the report notes. It adds, "Covering security posts with officers who are unfamiliar with the tasks or post location elevates security risk."
Klopp said one of the two guards taken hostage along with Floyd this week was a rookie, and the other was working overtime and not normally assigned to the building where the uprising occurred.
Officers frequently are forced to work overtime to make up for staff shortages. Klopp said overtime pay amounted to about $22 million over the past year. Correctional officers often don't find out until the end of their shifts that they are being "frozen" to work an additional shift.
"They are still forcing people to work overtime to make the facilities run at minimum staffing. They tell you you can't go home," Klopp said.
"Not having enough staff, not having enough senior staff, and the amount of overtime that we work leads to fatigue and complacency, because we have to work so much to make the facility run," he added.
According to a 2015 annual report, the DOC had 1,710 filled correctional officer positions in fiscal 2015, up from 1,664 the prior year but well short of the 1,796 approved positions.
More than a decade ago, a state task force said staff and management were complacent about security at the Smyrna prison. The panel was established in 2004 after a female counselor was held hostage and raped. The inmate who held her was shot to death.
Klopp said that, to his knowledge, none of the recommendations made by the task force in 2005 has been implemented.
Klopp and state Sen. Bruce Ennis of Smyrna, chairman of the Senate Corrections and Public Safety Committee, said turnover among prison guards averages about a dozen a month.
"They can't train them fast enough," Ennis said. "When you lose 13 guards a month, it's kind of hard to keep up."