By Jacob Farkas, Franklin & Marshall College
Smyrna, Delaware. What began as a routine morning quickly turned hectic when, at around 10:30am, an officer at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center called for immediate assistance within the C Housing Building.
Building C houses around 120 maximum security prisoners supposed to transition to medium security. It is unclear how many officers were present in Building C at the time, but there are normally between 5 and 6 officers for each house; which will normally hold upwards of 290 convicted criminals.
On this particular morning, 120 prisoners overpowered the officers and took them hostage. Four employees were taken by the inmates, who demanded to have better treatment as well as more opportunities for rehabilitation and education. Over the course of the day, two hostages as well as 27 inmates were released from Building C. The released hostages had broken bones as well as cuts and bruises.
State officials eventually took back the building after using a backhoe to breach. All prisoners were contained and one additional hostage was freed. But things didn’t turn out so well for Steven Floyd, a sergeant with 16 years on the job, for he was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead.
But how could something like this happen in a maximum security prison?
A correctional officer at Stateville Maximum Security Prison with nearly 20 years’ experience offered me his insight. “At any given point” he said, “there should only be a maximum of 58 inmates out of their cells at once unless they are going to the yard.” Still though, only six officers for 58 inmates? That just seems like a volcano waiting to explode.
This officer also recalled a situation where it very likely could’ve turned ugly. One gallery (~58 inmates) were supposed to go to commissary but the prison went on lockdown, meaning they could no longer go. Commissary is very important to inmates because that’s primarily how they repay debt to other inmates. The next morning the inmates were released from their cells to go get food when they surrounded five officers and got in a screaming match with them. Our source stepped in and lured the inmates out a side door towards the yard promising them commissary time, only to call for backup and contain the inmates once outside. Had things gotten physical like at James T. Vaughn, a code 1 would’ve been called on the radio, signifying that an inmate had assaulted an officer. The prison would’ve been put on lockdown and all remaining officers would respond to the call, likely using chemical agents to deescalate the situation.
So what went wrong in the case of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center?
It is good to keep in mind that inmates are convicted criminals, it doesn’t matter what they are doing time for, if they don’t get what they want they will act up. In this unfortunate case, many inmates working together resulted in the officer being overpowered with little time to react.
This event has helped us see what officers already knew was a major flaw in our prison system. Due to budget cuts, there is a severe lack of officers. In the case of James T. Vaughn, the prison forced officers to work overtime rather than filling nearly 90 vacant positions. This resulted in tired officers on duty, or even a lack of officers.
Our source says that the only way to prevent situations like this from happening in the future would be to cut down on inmate line movement and hire more officers. It is clear that the latter can only happen if federal and state prisons are granted more funding.
Personally, I feel that President Trump should reallocate much of the alleged budget cuts into the correctional department in order to decrease problems within prisons across America.
Inmates Take Employees Hostage at a Delaware State Prison, by Richard Pérez-Peña and Jon Hurdle. NY Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/us/delaware-prison-hostage-situation.html>
Delaware Prison Standoff Ends With Correction Officer Dead, by Richard Pérez-Peña and Jon Hurdle. NY Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/us/delaware-prison-jamesvaughncorrectionalcenter.htmlrref=collection/sectioncollection/us&action=click&contentCollection=us&egion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=1>