Civil suit alleges cuts to prison staffing, others, under both former administrations created a dangerous situation in Delaware's prisons

The families and survivors impacted by the February riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna are suing two former Delaware governors for what their lawyers call “decades of dereliction.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, April 18, representatives from the Neuberger Firm and from Jacobs and Crumpler spoke on behalf of the family of the late Steven Floyd, and correctional officers Winslow Smith, Justin Tuxward, Matthew McCall, Owen Hammond and Joshua Wilkinson, all of whom were injured or otherwise affected by the riots Feb. 1 and 2.

Lt. Floyd, a 16-year employee of the correctional system and military veteran, is believed to have died at the hands of his inmate captors following a period of prolonged and sustained torture, according to the documents filed in district court on Tuesday.

The suit names the state Department of Correction, former governors Jack Markell and Ruth Ann Minner, former correction commissioners Stanley W. Taylor Jr., Judge Carl Danburg, and Robert Coupe, former Office of Management and Budget directors Ann Visalli and Brian Maxwell, current OMB Director Michael S. Jackson, and current DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps, as defendants.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages, the value of which will be determined by a jury, should the case go to trial.

The suit alleges that both Minner and Markell failed to employ enough officers during their respective administrations to safely run Delaware prisons.

“Instead, they spend up $23 million a year forcing understaffed officers to work 16 hour overtime shifts, to save money at the expense of risking human lives at the hands of violent criminals,” a press release from the attorneys read.

It also alleges that Minner made cuts to unstaffed prison positions that further created a dangerous situation.

The suit alleges that the overcrowded and understaffed Building C, where the siege took place, was considered the most dangerous building at Vaughn Correctional Center, and that conditions brought about by funding cuts were ripe for a volatile situation to erupt.

Historically a medium-to-high security wing used for transitioning prisoners to higher or lower security levels, the block was made increasingly unsafe with the fall 2016 addition of numerous violent offenders, the release states.

Co-counsel Tom Crumplar said that the lack of video cameras throughout the center also created a dangerous situation by failing to provide officers with proper observational capabilities.

“How many cameras do you think there were, at that building? Zero. That Building C had no cameras, whatsoever,” Crumplar said, later adding, “It was a death trap.”

Over 100 inmates took over Building C for 18 hours on Feb. 1 and 2, during which officers Floyd, Wilkinson, and Smith, were all simultaneously attacked, severely beaten, and imprisoned – Wilkinson and Smith in one closet, and Floyd in another, the suit states.

Tuxwad and Winslow, who had been working on the boilers in the basement earlier in the day, had to barricade themselves from harm for roughly 13 hours, before making a daring escape to rescue.

While Wilkinson and Smith were eventually released during the riot, Floyd succumbed to his injuries before the rescue attempt early Feb. 2

Floyd’s death is still under investigation at this time, the perpetrators of his homicide still unknown.

Co-counsel Tom Neuberger said that “it could be years” before the case sees a jury trial.

Neuberger also could not say whether or not Floyd had made any official notice of complaint on the conditions at Vaughn.

In a statement from the DOC, community relations chief Jayme Gravell noted, “We cannot comment on pending litigation; however, Commissioner Phelps is working hand-in-hand with Gov. Carney and members of the General Assembly to further ensure the safety and security of DOC facilities.”