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Prison workers sue state of Delaware over inmate riot

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) 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. The lawsuit claims state officials have failed to meet their obligation to provide adequate staffing and safe working environments within Delaware’s prisons. 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 four correctional workers hostage at the maximum-security Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna in February, setting off a nearly 20-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 before climbing to an attic and onto a roof, where they were rescued.

“The complaint charges that this calamity is all due to the dereliction of duty by these two governors, and their appointees,” plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Neuberger said in a prepared statement. 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.

It says guards earned up to $23 million a year in overtime working forced 16 hour shifts, while they lacked the staffing needed to search cells for illegal weapons, among other things. If there had been adequate staffing at Vaughn Correctional Center, the inmates would not have been able to overpower the officers, take control of the building and kill Floyd, the president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware has said. Union members say chronic understaffing has left prison guards badly outnumbered and unable to ensure operational security. 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. 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.

In response to a query from The Associated Press, a Carney spokesman last month denied that the governor had made any decisions during the emergency response.

“The governor trusted his law enforcement team on the ground to make decisions on how best to respond throughout the incident,” Carney spokesman Jon Starkey said in an email.

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