Two-day Smyrna, Delaware prison siege leaves one dead
Editor's Note: We're republishing the top stories of the last year. This was the most-read story of 2017 on Delawareonline.com
The Department of Corrections Thursday morning said one employee had been safely rescued shortly after 5 a.m., but that another employee was found unresponsive. That employee was pronounced dead at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday.
The hostage who was rescued is being examined at a local hospital, and is alert and talking, according to a statement by the Department of Corrections.
The Department of Corrections Response Teams and the Delaware State Police are continuing to investigate the situation at the prison, but Building C, which had been taken by inmates, has been secured.
The situation at the prison started at 10:38 a.m. Wednesday, a corrections officer made a radio call for immediate assistance from the Building C Tier B, which houses about 125 inmates. The prison was put on lockdown at that time, according to State Police Sgt. Richard Bratz.
Perry Phelps, the new commissioner of the Delaware Department of Correction, who was confirmed just two weeks ago, said at an evening press conference that the radio call activated the Department of Correction Emergency Response team because staffers were taken hostage. Phelps then said that earlier reports of five staffers being held were incorrect. Only four staffers were taken hostage. One officer who was injured was released at 2:25 p.m.; at 5:25 p.m. eight inmates were released; and just before 8 p.m., another staff member and 19 inmates were released. On Thursday at about 12:30 a.m., 14 more inmates were released.
Eighty-two inmates remain in Building C, according to the Department of Correction.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Bratz did not take any questions but said the Department of Correction would provide hourly updates. No information was released about food and water supplies or what kind of weapons the hostage-takers may have.
Around 2 p.m., The News Journal tip line received a call from a woman who said her fiancé is an inmate at the Smyrna-area prison and was being held hostage. Then, a man’s voice was patched onto the line, and he said he was asked by hostage takers to relay demands to The News Journal.
"I'm just doing what I'm being told to. I'm just trying to help, ma'am," the man told a News Journal reporter. "They just need somebody to hear their demands." The man would not give his name because he said he was instructed not to.
The demands came in the form of a manifesto or decree and mostly called for prison reforms.
"Improper sentencing orders. Status sheets being wrong. Oppression towards the inmates," the voice continued.
Prisoners funneled a second call to The News Journal through a woman who said her son was in Vaughn Correctional and was being held hostage.
"We’re trying to explain the reasons for doing what we’re doing," one of the voices on the call said. "Donald Trump. Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know that the institution is going to change for the worse. We know the institution is going to change for the worse. We got demands that you need to pay attention to, that you need to listen to and you need to let them know. Education, we want education first and foremost. We want a rehabilitation program that works for everybody. We want the money to be allocated so we can know exactly what is going on in the prison, the budget."
The News Journal turned over the audios to police and prison officials. Both were posted to delawareonline.com.
Robert Coupe, head of the state's Homeland Security Department, said that the prisoners' demands would be addressed after the situation was resolved safely, "then dialogue can occur."
Coupe would not comment on the motives of the prisoners, saying they were working through the negotiation process. "The focus of the investigation will be how this happened."
A former inmate who was incarcerated in Building C until last winter called The News Journal on Wednesday night and said tensions have been brewing in the unit for years.
Conditions are poor, newer correctional officers harass the inmates, educational programs are limited and inmates know good behavior will not get them transferred to medium-security buildings because of overcrowding, he said.
“They just got to the point where they’re fed up,” he said. “If DOC is worried about the officers and not their demands, if nothing changes, I guarantee there will be another hostage situation in a different building.”
At the evening press conference, Gov. John Carney told assembled media, “We are using all the resources we have to bear to get our employees out.” He stressed that the focus of the day was on the safety of the corrections officers.
The scene outside the prison
Dozens of police vehicles, as well as ambulances, poured through the entrance to the prison starting just before 11 a.m. Helicopters soon circled over the prison.
Jayme Gravell, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, described the situation as an isolated incident, adding there's no threat to the public.
The Blood Bank of Delmarva sent out a tweet just before 12:30 p.m. requesting donations of O-type blood and platelets “to go to Smyrna.”
Rick Thomas, the blood bank’s vice president of blood services, said the request was a precautionary measure.
“A hospital in that area contacted us and asked us to boost their supply,” he said. “They are expecting patients to be brought in.”
Lifelong Smyrna resident Catherine Simon said she first learned of the hostage situation at Vaughn when her husband, Joe, a staff lieutenant at the prison, emailed to tell her he was OK.
“He told me to check the local news, and that’s when I saw what was going on,” she said.
Even though her husband is safe, Simon said she's been overwhelmed by fear.
“He’s worked there for 22 years so anyone involved is more than likely not just someone he works with,” she said. “They’re likely personal friends and someone we care about.”
Simon said she and family members of other correctional officers had been in near constant communication all afternoon.
“It’s been a lot of Facebook messages, texts and phone calls to see if anyone has heard from this one or whether that one is OK,” she said. “It’s really scary, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be ending anytime soon.”
According to the Department of Correction website, the prison houses minimum-, medium- and maximum-security inmates, along with Kent County detainees awaiting trial. It is also the site of the state's death row and where executions were carried out until the Delaware Supreme Court ruled in August that the state's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The prison opened in 1971.
While few details have been released, officials will surely review how this situation occurred. On July 12, 2004, Scott A. Miller abducted and raped a prison counselor.
Miller, a convicted serial rapist, was serving a 699-year prison sentence at the Delaware Correctional Center – now Vaughn Correctional Center – when he passed through two security checkpoints armed with a homemade knife before taking Cassandra Arnold hostage for nearly seven hours, sexually assaulting her during the ordeal.
The standoff ended when a corrections officer shot Miller to death.
A task force investigating security lapses at the prison found that a staff shortage at the prison – and other state penal facilities – forced officers to work large amounts of overtime.
The investigation also made dozens of recommendations for improving the safety of employees and inmates, including the need for additional cameras to monitor inmates, for better communications equipment and to fill vacant correction officers positions.
The incident brought promises that changes would occur in the state's prison system, but in a 2006 interview with The News Journal, Arnold said she didn’t think anything had been done.
Arnold and the state finalized a $1.65 million out-of-court settlement that same year.
By the 10th hour of the standoff, the incident attracted global attention on social media, with thousands expressing striking opinions, despite little information, about the prisoners' actions. They often reflected political beliefs, particularly after one prisoner mentioned Donald Trump as a reason for the uprising.
News about the hostage standoff was the top story on Twitter as people posted using the hashtag #Vaughnrebellion.
Some were self-identified social justice advocates calling for reform of the country’s prisons. Conservatives countered that police should not delay and enter the prison with overwhelming violence as soon as possible.
In 1991, Dan Dunne, the former national spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, oversaw the 10-day hostage crisis in Talladega, Alabama, when Cuban inmates took over the prison to block their deportation.
The biggest challenge for any prison dealing with a hostage situation like this is the release of information, he said. It's impossible for those releasing information to know who on the inside may be receiving it — inmates have access to TVs, radios, and as evidenced by calls to The News Journal on Wednesday, phones.
But it's also important for police and negotiators to understand what the hostage takers were thinking and what motivated them to take hostages in the first place, Dunne said.
Their demands need to be respected and understood in order to interact with them, he said. During the standoff in Alabama, investigators used a news reporter from the Miami Herald to help the demands of inmates be heard and negotiate further.
"At least there is information to discuss," he said of the phone calls made to The News Journal. "The doors closed with nothing from the hostages can be more dangerous."
He also stressed the importance of security in these prisons, especially those in maximum security facilities where offenders have been deemed violent and threatening. To end up in one of these facilities, inmates have to demonstrate that they are a risk and pose a threat, and corrections officers must take that designation seriously for their own safety, Dunne added.
"There's a distinct difference" between maximum security and other levels," he said. "That's why the designation is important."
Staff writers Karl Baker and Scott Goss contributed to this story.