A hostage standoff over better education and rehabilitation. Why?

Inmates at Delaware's largest correctional facility called out President Trump in a phone-call manifesto on Wednesday. But the federal government has limited control over state prisons. 

Doug Curran/Reuters
A Delaware State Police vehicle overlooks the James T. Vaughn Corrections Center during a lockdown where hostages were taken in an incident at the men's prison in Smyrna, Delaware, U.S., February 1, 2017.

In the heat of a nearly 24-hour hostage standoff with authorities at Delaware’s largest prison that left one correctional officer dead, two callers who identified themselves as inmates issued their manifesto over the phone on Wednesday.

The prisoners' demands, which include better living conditions and access to education, come at a time when the US government appears to be shifting from a focus on criminal justice reform to enforcement and order. Former President Obama made prison reform a key feature of the later years of his administration, but the kind of overcrowding highlighted by the Delaware prisoners' concerns continues to dog prison systems from Alabama to California. Now as President Trump settles into office, the prisoners are trying to persuade him that prison reform can fit into his "law and order" presidency.

“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,” they told The News Journal newspaper in Wilmington. “Donald Trump. Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know the institution is going to change for the worse.”

The death of a correctional officer during their protest, however, may make it difficult for supporters of law enforcement to hear their broader message. Within hours, two lines of protesters gathered outside the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, one in support of corrections officers and the other calling for an independent investigation into the facility.

Hours after inmates delivered their list of demands, state police stormed the part of the prison where hostages were taken, rescuing one employee, and finding the officer, Sgt. Steven Floyd, unresponsive. Whether the Delaware Department of Corrections or the facility will act on the manifesto remains unclear. Because the uprising involved hostages and a death, the department cannot comment on the investigation into the inmates’ demands, spokeswoman Chelsea Hicks tells The Christian Science Monitor. Still, the inmates' list, specific to their cell block and their state, fits into a national debate about prison reform.

In one sense, states are almost exclusively responsible for their own prisons, with the federal government providing only ancillary funding for programs and oversight over such matters as civil rights investigation. While the First State can bring about the most immediate and far-reaching changes for its own prisoners, President Trump can set the tone for how Delaware and other states manage their prisons for at least the next four years, say advocates for criminal justice reform.

“What’s happening at Delaware is happening at a specific institution, but it speaks to the demands and concerns that incarcerated people have been raising around the country,” says Dan Berger, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus. “The specific conditions they raise and highlight are ones that prisoners around the country are battling – a lack of equitable programs; a lack of opportunities for people to actually learn skills that will help them upon release; a lack of efficient mechanisms or processes used to release them.”

“That balance, of the local and the national, is one we have to navigate with more clarity in the Trump administration,” he adds in a phone interview with the Monitor.

In addition to the hostage takers’ demands for more education and better rehabilitation programs, they called for reforms to “improper sentencing orders,” “status sheets being wrong,” and “oppression towards other inmates," according to an earlier phone call, in which an inmate who appeared to have been taken hostage read a statement to The News Journal.

The standoff appears to have started Wednesday morning when a correctional officer inside Building C, which houses more than 100 inmates, radioed for immediate assistance, according Delaware State Police spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz, as the Associated Press reported. Other officers responded to help, and four employees were taken hostage, he said. After hours of negotiations and a series of hostage releases, the standoff ended with state police storming Building C at about 5 a.m. Thursday morning, according to a statement from the Delaware Department of Corrections.

The Vaughn Correctional Center, the state’s largest correctional facility for men with about 2,500 inmates, offers educational programming already. It offers adult basic education, high school, vocational training, and life skills, according to the Delaware Department of Corrections's annual report for fiscal year 2014.

But a former inmate incarcerated in Building C until last winter told The News Journal on Wednesday Night that discontent among inmates in the block had been brewing for years. He said conditions are poor, newer correctional officers harass inmates, educational programs are limited, and inmates know good behavior will not get them transferred to medium-security buildings because of overcrowding.

The population of Delaware’s state prison has been steadily growing with 5,452 inmates in 24-hour facilities in 2011, and 5,745 at the end of June 2015, according to its 2015 annual report.

Stephen Hampton, an attorney from Dover about 15 miles away, and who has represented inmates in abuse cases, describes other problems with the facility and the state prison system. The release of inmates is sometimes delayed because of problems with record-keeping. Medical treatment can also be delayed by staffing problems. And pre-trial inmates in the facility are locked up for essentially 23 hours a day, receiving no access to the library or gyms, he tells the Monitor.

Observers and those who work in the state prisons say the system is also underfunded by the state legislature and understaffed, especially compared with neighboring states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

But the problems former inmates and experts speak to – overcrowding, poor educational and rehabilitation programs – are problems across the country, says David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

“They are complaints that are not unreasonable,” he adds. “It’s not unreasonable for prisoners to be rehabilitated in society when they get out. It’s not unreasonable for them to want to live in uncrowded conditions. That these complaints are so common is an unfortunate commentary on how we run the criminal justice system in this country.”

Historically, prisoners in the United States have turned to prison rebellions to voice concerns about local conditions. But those uprisings have often tied into broader national and international events, explains Dr. Berger at the University of Washington. In the 1960s and 1970s, these protests mixed in with commentary about urban policing and the Vietnam War. The most recent wave of rebellions have included hunger and labor strikes about prison conditions and fair wages. Up to 30,000 inmates in California and Georgia, for example, went on a hunger strike in 2010 to protest solitary confinement and other penal conditions. Last year, inmates organized a national labor strike behind bars.

But from the 1960s until now, the consensus in Washington about the national prison system has also shifted. In 1994 under the controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act signed by then-President Clinton, anyone in state or federal prisons lost access to Pell Grants, which are federal education scholarships of $5,815 or less per year. But under the Obama presidency, bipartisan consensus has begun to coalesce around prison reform.

The 44th president took advantage of this consensus by passing sweeping prison reforms in his final years in office. In addition to becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, Mr. Obama brought back Pell Grants to inmates through a pilot program, announced in August the US would phase out its use of private prisons by the end of year, created a “school district” for inmates in federal prisons, and mandated new standards for privately-run halfway-houses, according to The Washington Post. He also commuted the sentences of 1,385 people, more than any other president in American history, and granted 212 pardons, according to the White House.

But that tide could turn under the Trump administration. Mr. Trump, who has billed himself as the “law and order” president, has promised to detain millions of immigrants, and bring back private prisons, according to the Associated Press. And his nomination for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, in an October 2015 congressional hearing on sentencing laws and the prison, said he supported efforts to keep convicts from becoming repeat offenders, but questioned programs meant to reduce recidivism.

“My observation over the years of attempts to have education and other kind of character-building programs in prison before they’re released doesn’t seem to have much benefit,” Mr. Sessions added later.

The Trump administration could reverse the direction pushed by its predecessor, both in tone and actions. But Democratic-controlled Delaware has a lot of control, says Mr. Fathi at the ACLU.

“Because state prisons are run by state governments, every state gets to make its own decision,” he says. “Any state could decide they’re going to provide more educational programming or more rehabilitation or they’re going to reduce crowding.”

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