Prison guards sue Delaware leaders over inmate riot
Posted 4:59 p.m. Tuesday
Updated 5:01 p.m. Tuesday
WILMINGTON, Del. — The family of a guard who was killed and five other officers who survived a prison riot sued the state of Delaware in federal court on Tuesday, blaming the deadly uprising on security and staffing problems that officials had ignored for years.
"My hostage clients are presently the walking wounded," attorney Thomas Neuberger said at a news conference announcing the suit.
"They are here today because I forced them to be here. They're not recovering well: They're subject to constant flashbacks, nightmares, terror, insomnia, PTSD. Just their being here today is like ripping a Band Aid off a festering wound," he said.
Defendants include former governors Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell, along with Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps and three former commissioners, and state budget director Michael Jackson and his predecessors.
Inmates took five correctional workers hostage at the maximum-security Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna in February, setting off an 18-hour standoff during which correctional officer Steven Floyd was killed.
The siege ended when tactical teams used a backhoe to breach the building and rescue a female counselor. Two other guards had been released earlier after being tormented and beaten by inmates. Three other correctional workers locked themselves in a basement for hours, then climbed to a roof where they were rescued.
Four of the five surviving guards showed up on Tuesday. Not Joshua Wilkinson, though — Neuberger said he has yet to recover from being brutally beaten, thrown handcuffed into a closet and then set on fire with a burning blanket.
The complaint, which seeks a jury trial to determine damage awards, says governors Minner and Markell made understaffing the prisons their official policy for 16 years while hiding the risk and true cost from the legislature.
Overtime pay ballooned to $23 million during their tenure as guards were forced to work 16-hour shifts, in part because Markell required 90 positions to remain vacant, the complaint says.
"This was all the direct fault of two governors who were derelict in their duties to protect those working within the system to keep people safe," Neuberger said.
Authorities had been warned for years of the problems, he said. Back in 2005, a convicted rapist repeatedly raped a woman before trying to kill her with an eight-inch, homemade knife. Investigators called for more staff, security cameras and routine weapons checks. More than a decade later, the building where the riot broke out did not have security cameras, the attorneys said.
The union has argued for years for increasing pay and benefits so that more officers can be recruited and retained, ending a heavy reliance on forced overtime to meet minimal operating needs.
A corrections officer familiar with the situation said about 200 corrections officers called out sick on Monday to protest. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation is a sensitive collective bargaining matter.
Prisons spokeswoman Jayme Gravell said the "vast majority" showed up to work. Gravell said the department doesn't comment on pending litigation, but said the commissioner is "working hand-in-hand" with the governor and lawmakers to "further ensure the safety and security of DOC facilities."
The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware, reported that Phelps emailed employees warning them that officers working shifts during a coordinated sick-out would "be potentially placed in danger by those who do not show up for work."
Gov. John Carney, who took office in January, is not named as a defendant, but the lawsuit alleges that he violated prison policy by intervening in the emergency response to the uprising.
According to the DOC policy manual, the warden is the "ultimate commander" in the event of a major emergency and is in charge until the situation is resolved.
The complaint alleges that Warden David Pierce had given the green light to a prison emergency response team to retake the building and rescue the hostages within an hour of the start of the uprising, but "the governor instead intervened, "overruled the warden and halted the rescue attempt, for presently unknown reasons."
The complaint says the warden, who has since been reassigned, was "enraged" by the governor's intervention.
The lawsuit notes that the plaintiffs have been unable to determine when Floyd's death occurred because of Carney's refusal to release autopsy results to his family.
A spokesman for the governor, Jon Starkey, emailed a statement Tuesday saying: "any allegation that the Governor intervened in rescue attempts and overruled the Warden or the Commissioner of the Department of Correction is false."
He also repeated what he had told The Associated Press in a statement last month, that the "governor trusted his law enforcement team on the ground to make decisions on how best to respond throughout the incident."
Associated Press Writer Jessica Gresko contributed from Washington, D.C.