In what may be the state’s largest-ever settlement of a civil lawsuit, on Dec. 15 a federal judge approved a settlement agreement between Delaware and survivors of a correctional officer killed last February during an inmate riot and takeover at a state prison, and five other corrections officers held by rioters during an 18-hour siege.
The settlement calls for the state to pay more than $7.5 million to the family of Sgt. Steven Floyd Sr. and to the other corrections workers held hostage at the maximum-security James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna. The civil-rights lawsuit had named two former Democratic governors, Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, as well as top state corrections and budget officials, claiming their years-long failure to provide staffing levels needed for workplace safety led to the inmates’ uprising that killed Sgt. Floyd and harmed the other staffers taken hostage. The complaint argued prison understaffing was the state’s official policy over a 16-year period, and defendant officials worked to hide from the state Legislature the hazards and costs of that policy, such as mandatory 16-hour shifts causing $23 million in annual overtime pay.
Other accusations in the prison workers’ lawsuit were that top officials skimped on training for prison staff and even ignored reports they themselves had commissioned that revealed serious security weaknesses and linked them to short-handed staffing and excessive use of overtime. It alleged understaffing and other neglect began when Minner became governor in 2001 – about 500,000 hours of overtime were recorded in her first year in office – but worsened substantially under Markell. By the end of Markell’s tenure, total annual overtime hours had risen to about 800,000, and staff working double shifts made up about 40 percent of total hours worked.
With many staff positions left unfilled and the workforce stretched thin by required overtime, the Department of Corrections abandoned its specialized security teams to perform random shakedowns and security sweeps to find and seize weapons and contraband at Vaughn, despite numerous reports from prison staff in the months leading up to the riot of tampering to equipment that removed many pieces of metal – obvious signs of homemade weapons being prepared. The lawsuit also noted evidence that, shortly before the February 2017 riot, inmates had been staging fights in Building C, seen in retrospect as “dry run” probing for weaknesses in security responses.
The complaint further alleged that within an hour of the riot breaking out, the then-warden had authorized an emergency response team to retake Building C, in which rioters had seized control and taken prison staffers hostage, but the current governor John Carney — who took office a month before the riot and was not named in the lawsuit as a defendant — intervened to overrule that order, thus delaying a planned rescue. A spokesman for Carney denied that claim.
The settlement followed an unsuccessful attempt by lawyers for the state to persuade the presiding judge to dismiss the case, on the grounds the state workers’ interest in having a safe workplace did not rise to the level of a constitutionally protected right. They also claimed the complaint, if allowed to proceed, would impermissibly invite a jury to become involved in reviewing how public funds are allocated.
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.