Staffers and ex-inmates of Vaughn Correctional paint a bleak picture of daily life at the Smyrna prison.
Ex-inmates from Smyrna’s prison, with past and present staffers, are fed up with the way it is run.
Jaray Harris, an inmate from 2007 to 2016 at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, said the administration’s poor treatment of inmates led to the Feb. 2 death of Lt. Steven Floyd.
Floyd, a Vaughn 16-year veteran officer, died in an 18-hour uprising in Building C. The investigation is ongoing and all 120 inmates housed there are suspects. Warden David Pierce has been placed on paid administrative leave.
Harris said he and fellow inmates complained for years that the Delaware Department of Corrections’ medical system was lackluster and they were being bullied by guards, including not being fed a couple times. Deliberately not feeding inmates is against policy, said DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.
Nevertheless, Harris said he and his peers’ complaints went unheard behind the prison walls.
“That’s why the uprising happened. If you keep telling your landlord ‘my roof’s leaking, my roof’s leaking,’ what’s going to happen? The roof’s going to cave in soon,” said Harris, who was sentenced to 10 years for drug charges and assaulting an officer, but was released after nine for good behavior.
“People have even written the President of the United States. I don’t know how far that letter got, but people have been writing everybody. That’s how deep the cries are,” the former inmate said.
Staffers testified before the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee at Legislative Hall Feb. 23. They slammed the administration, saying its turned a deaf ear to them about being underpaid, understaffed and in unsafe work conditions.
They complained the chaotic conditions contributed to Floyd’s death.
Sgt. Aaron Forkum, a Vaughn correctional officer for five-and-a-half years, said the guards have lost control of the prison.
“We’ve been screaming for help for a long time. Nobody’s listened. It took us losing an officer to have this conversation,” Forkum said. “Right now what we have is not a prison, it’s a three-ring circus.”
Forkum and others said their safety concerns intensified after the DOC entered into an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The agreement stemmed from a federal lawsuit alleging more than 100 inmates with mental illness were being held in solitary confinement under conditions known to make mental illness worse and cause paranoia, self-mutilation and suicide attempts.
In 2016, the DOC and ACLU settled in an agreement that allows mental health inmates to spend no more than 15 days in solitary confinement. Once inmates complete their time in confinement, they can’t go back until they’ve been out for 15 days.
Charity Roop, who works in an administrative role for the DOC and was formerly a correctional officer, said this agreement has given inmates the upper hand.
“They really kind of run the show now, along with mental health. And they’re rewarded for bad behavior,” Roop said. “The mental health area now receives Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and donuts, because it’s for their mental health. [With] things like this, I don’t see where it’s an actual prison setting any longer.”
As a result of the agreement, Forkum said the classification system has caused more dangerous inmates to flow back into general population “without just cause or merit.” He said dangerous inmates are now housed with lesser nonviolent offenders, putting the latter at risk.
The sergeant said the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware didn’t have a seat at the table when the DOC settled the suit, which unfolded “almost like it was a backdoor deal.”
In his opinion, the ACLU deal should be revisited, revamped and reinstituted.
‘No sense of cooperation’
Correctional officer Jeffrey Peppers, who also agreed the ACLU agreement is flawed, said he’d feel safer if there were more security cameras. Building C, where the uprising occurred, has none.
Former inmate Harris agreed that more cameras would be an improvement, because it’ll deter crime.
“Nobody’s going to commit a crime if you know the police is going to be right there. So if you had a camera sitting right there, who’s going to stab a person in front of it?” said Harris, adding the cameras would also increase the chances of more inmates making it home safely to their families.
Brian Collison, who rose up the ranks to sergeant and left Vaughn in April after nine years, said one of his problems is with supervisor training.
“I went from correctional officer to corporal to sergeant and I did not receive any additional training,” said Collison, who also griped it took him years to get a weekend off at the prison.
“When you enter a situation, you revert back to your training. That’s how you’re going to treat your staff,” Collison said. “There is no sense of cooperation within the department. There’s some training that needs to be done."
Vaughn ‘Dysfunctional’ Center
Former correctional officer Eleanor Ricchuiti echoed Forkum’s sentiments and said the prison was run like a circus when she was there from 2007 to 2013.
Ricchuiti said some of her coworkers didn’t take the job seriously, despite chronic understaffing.
“Others are having pizza and their donuts. And they’re having their friend, who are supposed to be officers on duty, that are sitting in the office with their feet propped up, having a coffee right along with them,” she said.
“You’ve got so many people that are getting a paycheck that sit in an office doing nothing,” said Ricchuiti, who also griped it took her years to get weekends off from work.
Ricchuiti said some of her younger coworkers were on a mission to make names for themselves and were “deliberately starting garbage.”
The former guard said she left Vaughn in 2013 after “God told me to get out of this place.” After her six years there, Ricchuiti said she could write a book about the abysmal conditions.
“I’d call it ‘The James T. Vaughn Dysfunctional Center,’ because it’s dysfunctional from the top down,” she said.
Inmates ‘can’t even breathe’
Keith Warren knows the prison’s conditions better than most. He was there for 22 years for first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He’s been out since the spring of 2016.
Warren identified a lack of respect for inmates by the administration.
The ex-con said a mass of inmates can get punished as a result of what one or two do. This includes cursing at an inmate or officer.
“Because of your actions, I can’t get a shower or I can’t get a phone call, or someone else can’t go to a visitation or things of that nature, all because of what you did,” Warren said. “See, that’s what creates the [uprising] that just happened.”
Warren said inmates are already on edge because they’re in prison. And the more respect and privileges are taken from them, the more they’re likely to act out.
“You’re tightening the screws so much to where jokers can’t even breathe now,” he said.
The former inmate also mentioned prisoners didn’t receive enough time in the law library, where offenders get to research the law in hopes of beating or reducing their sentence.
Warren said they got about 20 minutes a week for the law library. The last time he used it was around 2012 and he said the computers were from the 1990s and there were typewriters.
DOC spokeswoman Gravell said the law library currently has 10 computers purchased from 2012, along with six typewriters. She said offenders are provided two two-hour appointments per week.
While Warren understands correctional officers have a tough job, he said it’s not fair for some of them to bring their personal problems to the prison and take it out on inmates.
“You have some COs that come there and mind their business and do their job. Inmates have a lot of respect for those type of COs,” he said. “But then you find COs, man, that live to come in and f*** your bid up."
Pay won't cut it
Geoff Klopp, president for the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the first thing to address is raising wages. He said the turnover rate is 57 percent for correctional officers in Delaware after they’ve been on the job between three to five years.
“By adjusting pay, we will be able to get some employees that were willing to come to work here, because right now we can’t even get people to fill out the application,” Klopp said.
COAD attorney Bruce Rogers said it’s become a trend for new recruits to gain a few years of experience and then leave Delaware facilities for neighboring states with better wages.
Rogers said the average starting salary for Delaware correctional officers is $31,000, compared to around $45,000 in some surrounding states.
The attorney further explained some of DOC’s officers are making around $45,000 after being on the job for 20 years, whereas others in neighboring states are making about $80,000 over the same period.
Rogers said he’s long lobbied for higher wages, but to no avail. “We’ve been pressing for staffing concerns for years. Throughout the eight years of the [Gov. Jack] Markell administration, staffing concerns have been the top of your concerns,” the attorney said.
Former inmate Harris said an increase in salary would be a good idea, because it’ll give officers an incentive to stop selling contraband to offenders.
“That might prevent the officers from smuggling in cell phones,” said Harris, who explained prisoners will pay $500 to get a phone.
Understaffing has been a huge issue for the DOC. The remedy has been to fill holes with mandatory overtime.
By the end of this week, Klopp said he’s hopeful there will be an “agreement on a financial package that will cause a little bit of relief to everyone that’s a correctional officer in the state of Delaware.”
Otherwise, the current pay model isn’t likely to attract new recruits, Rogers said.
“You spent 20 years on a job and you’ve only increased your salary by $15,000,” the COAD attorney said. “That’s not going to cut it.”