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James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna is shown.(Photo: JASON MINTO/THE NEWS JOURNAL)Buy Photo
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON OCTOBER 31, 2004
In June 2000, after a judge sentenced serial rapist Scott A. Miller to 699 years for attacks that terrorized Wilmington women, officials at the state prison near Smyrna put him in a maximum-security unit. Locked in his cell almost all day, Miller could leave for exercise, bathing, counseling and an infrequent visitor or phone call. Outside his cell, Miller needed a guard escort and wore handcuffs and leg irons. Miller became a chronic violator of prison disciplinary rules, even while under the tightest security, prison records show. Eleven months after his arrival, though, he was deemed a lower risk and sent to a medium-high security unit. He ate meals, took classes and bought commissary items without shackles or a guard escort.
Despite getting sent back to “max” twice, Miller was moved back to medium-high security by April 2003, where he stayed for 15 months, until July 12. That day, Miller, 45, took advantage of lax security to sneak into an office area and abduct counselor Cassandra Arnold, whom he raped before being shot to death after a seven-hour standoff. Arnold has since sued the state. Miller’s ability to move to a lower-risk ranking within Delaware’s prison system was not unusual among people convicted of heinous crimes. A News Journal review of the state’s prisoner classification policies found that Delaware provides some of its most violent inmates opportunities for reduced supervision not available in some other states. Another inmate in medium-high security is Donald Flagg, who is serving a life sentence for shooting a man to death in 1998 and holding the man’s wife as a sex slave for four days.
While security lapses are the main focus of a gubernatorial task force investigating the horror of July 12, members are also questioning Miller’s housing status. “Our analysis starts with why he was there and should he have been there,” vice chairman Thomas P. McGonigle said. Stanley W. Taylor Jr., commissioner of the state Department of Correction, would not comment for this article. Spokeswoman Beth Welch said Taylor has concluded Miller’s risk level was appropriate. Taylor has acknowledged, however, that Arnold’s ordeal led him to review classification policies and make one change: Officials now can take into account “a pattern of assaultive/predatory behavior in institutions and/or the community” before deciding risk level. Miller tied up victims and threatened them with a knife or gun.
Prison officials would not release Miller’s classification or disciplinary records, but revealed some details this month in an internal report about Arnold’s abduction and in recent interviews. Officials would not release classification procedures, but the paper obtained manuals and other policies. The newspaper’s review of Delaware’s policies found that:
Except for death row inmates, the risk level of all inmates in maximum security at Smyrna is reviewed every three months. Some experts, including Minnesota’s top classification administrator, said inmates such as Miller should remain in maximum security for several years before being considered for less-restrictive housing. Unlike Virginia, Rhode Island and some other states, Delaware does not consider time remaining on a sentence when reviewing risk.
Delaware also does not consider an inmate’s minor disciplinary violations, unlike Rhode Island, Wyoming, Tennessee and some other states. Instead, Delaware evaluates “major” prison violations, such as assault, theft and threatening behavior. The state does not consider minor violations, such as abusing privileges or being in an unauthorized area. The hostage standoff and prison security has become a key issue in Delaware’s gubernatorial campaign. Republican Bill Lee, a retired judge, said Delaware must revamp its classification system. “Any system that allows multiple violent offenders to have freedom of movement within the facility is obviously flawed,” Lee said. “Why was Miller running loose when he’s got 700 years to serve?”
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner would not agree to an interview, but issued a statement that said Delaware’s classification system, created with help from the National Institute of Corrections, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, was designed for Delaware’s inmates.
“Commissioner Taylor has asked that the NIC review our classifications policy as part of an action plan he released earlier this month, and I look forward to the results of that review,” Minner’s statement said.
Independent-Libertarian candidate Frank Infante did not return calls. Jeffrey K. Martin, Arnold’s attorney, said Miller’s prison violations and past crimes – which included cocaine trafficking, terroristic threatening and robbery convictions – should have earned him a permanent maximum security cell.
“A prisoner serving 700 years should be kept in maximum due to his propensity for violence and the fact that rehabilitation is not in order,” Martin said. Arnold also alleged in her lawsuit that an unidentified female guard once wrote a report accusing Miller of stalking her. Welch said officials could not confirm that allegation.
Brian Dawe, executive director of Corrections USA, a trade association for prison guards, said Delaware’s policies led to poor decisions with Miller.
“I wouldn’t even review the guy for five years, minimum,” Dawe said. “You need that long to get a good feel for him. It was poor management, and in light of what happened to the counselor, that’s been borne out.”
Welch said Miller was in maximum security for nearly 3e years before going to the medium-high unit. Only 11 months were at Smyrna; the rest were at Wilmington’s Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington while Miller awaited trial and sentencing.
The eight rapes and one kidnapping that put Miller in prison for good had teenagers and young women in northeast Wilmington fearing for their safety in 1997. He raped a 16-year-old and her younger cousin while wearing a werewolf Halloween mask, blindfolded one victim; and tied up two teenage victims at knifepoint. Miller’s probation officers for an unrelated misdemeanor charge told police he fit their description of the rapist. Miller was 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and often wore construction boots, which matched victims’ reports. When Miller was charged in March 1998, officials put him in maximum security at the Young prison, then called Gander Hill.
After a jury convicted Miller in March 2000, prosecutor Susan B. Purcell said his days as a sex predator had ended. “It’s very satisfying to know,” Purcell said, “he will not be able to do this to any other women.”
In August 2000, after getting a no-parole sentence, Miller was put in “max” at Smyrna. The state’s manual says maximum security is for inmates who are escape risks or “more severe internal management risks.”
Good behavior can result in a lower security level. “It is important that offenders with long sentences have the opportunity for reduced security levels based on compliance with institutional requirements,” the manual says. Inmates serving at least five years are reviewed after six months and then annually, the manual says. Those serving life are reviewed every 18 months. Anthony J. Rendina, Delaware’s classification administrator, said officials did not consider Miller as a life-sentence inmate. “He would have been with us the rest of his life, but he wasn’t serving a life sentence technically from a court-ordered standpoint,” he said.
Rendina also said Smyrna’s maximum security inmates are reviewed every three months. “The review schedule for classification is something you cannot waver from,” he said. Eric Skon, Minnesota’s assistant corrections commissioner, said prisoners there get a timetable to have their risk lowered if they complete programs. Miller would not have immediately qualified, he said.
“He would be considered a potential escape risk,” Skon said. “This is a guy who just got life. He’s never going to see daylight again. As long as he could medically handle it, he could stay in maximum security for an extended period of time.”
Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project, said inmates and staffers must be protected from violent inmates. Prisons also must provide even dangerous inmates serving life with incentives to be sent to lower-risk settings. “If you don’t, those prisoners will consistently be management problems,” Gotsch said. “A lot of times, lifers are the ones who get in the least amount of trouble.”
Security risk lowered
Miller could not stay out of trouble in prison. In 2000, while in “max,” he had nine disciplinary offenses, the internal report said. He broke three major rules and three minor ones at Gander Hill, followed by three minor ones at Smyrna. The worst offense was at Gander Hill, when he grabbed a baton from a guard and struck another guard, said Welsh, who would not detail other violations.
In July 2001, however, officials moved Miller to the medium-high cellblock. Rendina said he met requirements for the lower risk setting. The internal report said Miller completed several prison programs, including conflict resolution, decision making and anger management. He entered a high school diploma program but finished no courses. By January 2002, Miller was back in maximum security for “failing to follow his established treatment plan,” the report said.
That September, Miller went back to medium-high security. But in October, he committed a major violation, a fight in which another inmate was the aggressor, and went back to “max.”
Offenses a warning sign
By April 2003, Miller again qualified for medium-high security under a new point-based classification system. The system assesses inmate risk by assigning points for severity of the crime, previous felonies, escape attempts, major prison offenses and other factors. Reviews are conducted by a team of guards, counselors and managers. During reclassification, an inmate whose crime ranged from first-degree robbery to murder gets six points. Someone with four or more major prison offenses gets five points.
If the score is at least 17 of a possible 37, maximum security is suggested. The score usually determines an inmate’s housing unit, but classification boards or the warden can “override” the score. Several states consider factors Delaware does not rank: time remaining on sentence and minor disciplinary offenses. Joseph DiNitto, Rhode Island’s associate classification director, said both are good indicators.
“The closer you are to release or parole, the more likely you are going to try to behave yourself,” DiNitto said. Welch said consultants who helped devise Delaware’s system told the state that time remaining on a sentence was not a valid indicator.
DiNitto said chronic minor violations are a warning. “Here’s a guy I want to look at because they are unable to follow rules and regulations. Even though they may be relatively minor in nature, I’ve got my antennae up,” he said.
Over the 15 months before Arnold’s abduction, Miller remained in medium-high security but kept breaking rules. During 2003, he had one major offense for derogatory language, and three minors, including being in an off-limits area. This March, Miller scored low enough to qualify for medium-low security but was not moved there because of “disorderly/threatening behavior,” the internal report said. In the weeks preceding Arnold’s attack, Miller committed 10 more violations:
Abusing privileges, possessing a nondangerous contraband and not obeying an order on May 5.
A verbal confrontation and not obeying an order May 24 at his kitchen job, which led to his firing. On June 4, the sanction was overturned and he returned to work. Taking a sandwich to his cell, which on June 27 cost him his job again. The major offenses were theft and lying; the minors were not obeying an order, abuse of privilege and creating a health hazard. His frustration grew over his disciplinary problems, his recent divorce and his desire to be transferred to a Virginia prison.
On July 12, Arnold has said, Miller appeared agitated during her “Less Stress” group counseling session. A roving guard looked in on the class. After it ended, Arnold said she walked through two open security doors, one propped with a chock, to her office area. About 10 minutes later, she spotted Miller in a bathroom. He held a metal shank to her neck and dragged her to her office, where he raped her six hours later. Several minutes afterward, a rescuer who had crept through the ceiling shot Miller to death.
Miller could not have exploited the security lapses if he had been kept in maximum security, attorney Martin said. “An inmate sentenced to 699 years should have never been allowed to prowl the hallways in search of his next victim.”
Delaware’s penal system houses its inmates based on their security risk, which is determined by factors including the severity of their crime, previous escape attempts, and major disciplinary violations inside prison. The following is a description of the security levels inside Delaware’s five prisons and how prisoners are handled, based on state corrections policies and interviews with prison officials.
Maximum: Designed for inmates who present an escape risk and/or are more severe internal management risks. Prisoners are always escorted when outside cells and wear handcuffs and leg irons. They eat in their cell, and have access to limited programs. Not eligible for furlough.
Medium: Designed for inmates who present escape and/or internal management risks but are not as severe internal management risks as maximum inmates. Supervised by roving guards outside their cell. They eat meals in a chow hall. Eligible for unescorted furlough.
The Smyrna prison is the only one in Delaware with a medium-high unit. The unit is for inmates who have not yet established a record of behavior within the prison, according to a state classification manual. Inmates in medium-high units have restricted access to jobs and programs.
Minimum: Designed for inmates who do not present an escape risk and who are not management problems. Unrestricted movement outside cells. Access to all programs inside the prison perimeter and some outside the perimeter.
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Want to know how your school district is spending its money? Care to see your state legislators’ expense reports or the name and salary of government employees? Interested in how much your neighbors pay in property taxes? All this information is public. Nine years ago, the Legislature revised Pennsylvania s Right-to-Know Law to strengthen the public s right to keep tabs on government actions and government spending.
Now, more and more people and companies are exercising that right and fighting agencies that deny them access to public information, according to statistics from the Pennsylvania s Office of Open Records, which enforces the state s Right-to-Know Law. In 2015, nearly 3,000 people, organizations and companies appealed to the quasi-judicial state open records office to gain access to information they were denied. The OOR granted, at least partially, about 30 percent of those appeals. About 22 percent were dismissed because the government agency that denied the request proved to the OOR that the records weren’t public. About 8 percent are appeals that were pending, consolidated with other requests or transferred to another agency that had jurisdiction. Nearly 40 percent of appeals were dismissed because of procedural errors — the requester filed too early, too late or didn’t fill out the correct form. The number of appeals has more than doubled since the law was enacted in 2009. The 2016 data isn’t available yet. The OOR tracks only appeals, not the Right-to-Know requests that are filed around the state.
The Right-to-Know Law helps citizens hold their government accountable and the Office of Open Records is a critical part of that process, said Erik Arneson, the OOR’s executive director.
In 2008, the Legislature completely overhauled the Right-to-Know Law, which was originally passed in 1957. The law applies to all state, county and municipal agencies, boards, commissions, authorities and other public entities, plus the General Assembly and state-related institutions, like Penn State University. The revamped Right-to-Know Law states that government records are “presumed public” unless they are specifically exempted by the law. Medical records, human resources documents and ongoing investigative police matters are a few examples of documents that aren’t public records.
This is the stack of paperwork that Don George of Northampton received regarding a township property purchase. He said Northampton denied his Right-to-Know request, but the state Office of Open Records reversed that decision and he got the information he sought.
Bill Fraser / Photojournalist
The revised Right-to-Know Law gave the public access to a wide variety of information including: information on airport perimeter security breaches at Philadelphia International Airport and Northeast Philadelphia Airport; waiting lists for service at state-run forensic psychiatric centers; training records for a police officer charged (and later acquitted) in a fatal shooting; school district data that led to a story that revealed 10 percent of school employees in that district were related to the district s top officials; and health complaints tracked by the state Department of Health in areas with hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as fracking. Before the law’s 2008 revision, the burden of proving that a document was public was placed on the requester. Now, the government agency bears the burden of proving why the record shouldn’t be public if it denies a request. When a denial occurs or an agency doesn’t respond to a request, the denial or lack of response can be appealed at no cost to the Office of Open Records.
The goal of creating the OOR was to establish a user-friendly way for citizens to file appeals of denials with a process that did not require them to hire attorneys, Arneson said.
The agency s most recent report showed 1,414 inmates accounted for nearly half of those filing appeals for information. They sought everything from sentencing records and upcoming prison menus to Taylor Swift s high school records. The bulk of inmate appeals were denied, including more than 500 from one inmate. Individual Pennsylvania residents filed nearly more than a third of appeals. Companies and the news media accounted for most of the rest. Government officials submitted less than 1 percent of appeals.
Learning what’s public
Requesting records and appealing denials is time-consuming, according to a Northampton man, who said he invested more than 100 hours of time to understand the law and exercise his right to public information. Don George learned about the Right to Know Law in 2012 after serving on a public board. Since then, he has filed several requests and more than a dozen appeals for information.
All of my Right-to-Know requests are built around the desire to ensure open and transparent government, said George. His most recent request sought lawyer invoices on a Northampton property purchase. He said it took more than three months to get the records. His first request was denied. He appealed to the OOR, which granted him access.
Prior to the OOR, average citizens had nowhere to turn, he said.
Even with the state office stepping in, George said, people seeking records have to invest the time to learn how the law works and how to appeal a denial.
You have to understand the process and persevere, said George, adding that if the paperwork isn t filed properly or with the needed documentation, a request can be denied.
You really have to dot your i s and cross your t s,” he added. “The waters are extremely difficult to navigate and the law gives the advantage to the agencies and not average members of the public.”
Why state updated law
Former state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, who was the driving force in getting Pennsylvania s revised Right-to-Know Law, said the state has come a long way in its effort to increase transparency. Pileggi, who’s now a judge, said he was motivated to introduce the law after serving as a mayor and seeing the reluctance of some public officials to make records accessible.
Local elected officials, for the most part, had an approach or sense that the records of local governments were just that — records of local governments, he said. And citizens requests to see them were seen as a nuisance and a waste of time and not part of their job function. And, he said, agencies at all government levels across the state responded to requests for public information differently.
As a result, people got the sense that things were hidden; that government was trying to hide something, he said. It was time-consuming (to seek public records) and not very efficient. The 2008 law made the process easier and more clear for the public to access information, Pileggi said. It also standardized the process, creating a universal form that could be filed with all agencies. And it set up the OOR to enforce the law.
If people understand there is an easy, quick and inexpensive way to get information about their government, the sense of suspicion and hidden workings of government would dissipate, Pileggi said.
The law also required every government agency in Pennsylvania to appoint someone to oversee Right-to-Know requests.
Who seeks local info
Diane Hegele is the Right-to-Know officer in Hatboro, where she said she sometimes gets between five and 10 information requests a week. In her nine years of responding to requests, she said she’s only denied two — and only because the records weren t public. She said the law can be taxing on government agencies, especially offices with small staffs. Hegele, who also serves as the assistant borough secretary, said she takes her job as the open records officer very seriously, responding to requests within the required time span of five business days or advising the requester that additional time is needed to meet the request. Most requests that come into her office are from companies seeking records they could use to help sell their service or product, she said. For example, a fencing company requested and gained access to all borough pool permits. The company wanted the information, which contained the residents address, to market fences to people installing pools.
Requests from the public seeking information about local government are rare in Hatboro, she said.
We are very transparent here, but we get very few requests that actually pertain to borough business, she said. It s surprising, because it s local government that impacts us the most.
Gauging use, new issues
Arneson said the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records is working on a survey to gauge how many people around the state use the law and the OOR staff is training agencies and organizations to explain the law and teach people how to use it. Plus, he added, new issues are emerging that require constant updates and education. For example, the office has ruled that people can take pictures of documents rather than buying copies. Questions over whether certain video footage is public record have also been raised with the Office of Open Records. If a video record is denied, and a requester appeals, the office makes the final determination about whether it’s a public record. While the law exempts police records and video that is part of an ongoing investigation, the agency has determined that certain video footage — from a “dash cam” and video camera, for example — is public. Most agencies battle the release of videos, Arneson said, citing the “investigative” tool exemption.
When the law was drafted, smartphones and body cameras weren’t an issue, according to Pileggi, who said that’s why the office was set up to enforce the law through the appeals process.
“Body cameras worn by law enforcers?” he said. “There are always going to be gray areas that need to be clarified.”
NEW ORLEANS Mike James, a former NBA point guard, grew up in Long Island in the 1990s a big fan of the Knicks and Charles Oakley.
Everyone loved Oak, James said. James was a supporter of Oakley s on the court not off. Oakley is still at war with Knicks owner James Dolan after getting ejected and arrested eight days ago at Madison Square Garden following a scuffle with security. Star players have come to Oakley s defense, but James has a contrasting takeaway. In New Orleans to accept the Bobby Jones Award from the Christian organization Athletes in Action, James told The Post he thinks Oakley needs to grow up in retirement and not act like the bully he was as a player.
When people allow who they were to get in the way who they re trying to be today it s about growth, said James, who retired in 2014 after 13 NBA seasons, including a title with the Pistons. So why not try to figure out a new way not feel like you re losing your manhood that you re gaining?
That s the hardest thing for him, James added. You lived as a bully your whole life. At some point, even the bully has to realize bullying isn t really that cool.
The Garden alleges Oakley cursed out staffers and security guards before he was approached to leave; Oakley says he merely reacted to being surrounded and threatened by security. After his ban from the Garden was lifted Tuesday, Oakley remained on the offensive, demanding a public apology from Dolan for insinuating he s an alcoholic. On Thursday, after James spoke, Oakley compared Dolan to infamous former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was ousted for making racist comments on a leaked audio recording. James said he s only encountered Oakley once off the court, and it was a bad experience. In 2006, while playing for the Timberwolves, James was part of a celebrity golf tournament in Minnesota.
I was getting off the golf course and he was getting on it, said James, who now runs a hair products firm that specializes in wigs for cancer patients. He said, Watch out. Get out of the way, Mike. This is the first thing he says to me. Instead of saying, Hey, Mike, how you doing? Instead it s, Watch out, boy.
James emphasized Oakley was a terrific teammate and veteran leader as a player, but would be better served if he changed his tough-guy persona in retirement, especially if he has eyes on landing a job with the Knicks.
He was known for smacking cats in the face if they stepped out of line, James said. If he said he was going to do something, he was going to do it. As an owner, if you have a big black man pointing a finger at you, I don t care who you are. He says he s going to do something and has been known for doing something his whole career what makes you think this situation is going to be any different?
When you can be the baddest person and yet be the softest person, that s just about growing up and presenting a different type of person in a different type of way, James added.
Still a Knicks fan in retirement, James isn t happy with how his hometown team is playing. On a recent Hard2 Guard Radio podcast, the Amityville product said coach Jeff Hornacek should be fired.
Without your teammates, you can t win, James told The Post. I don t care how good everyone is individually, they don t know how to play collectively as a unit. They don t believe in each other. When you re hoping the player in front of you gets hurt so you can play, there s negative energy in the atmosphere. Too much negative energy in the atmosphere. Larry Brown always told us play the game the right way. Whatever differences you have with your teammates, don t bring it on the basketball court. Leave it off the court.