Former inmates, relatives claim Delaware prisoners abused, denied proper health care

 Nearly 200 people attended a town hall on Delaware prison reform Monday night. Many said prisoners are routinely subjected to abuse by guards and inadequate health care. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Nearly 200 people attended a town hall on Delaware prison reform Monday night. Many said prisoners are routinely subjected to abuse by guards and inadequate health care. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Delaware prisoners are subjected to widespread abuse by guards and inadequate health care, more than two dozen former inmates, relatives of inmates and civic activists said during a town hall Monday night.

The forum was hosted by the Rev. Christopher Bullock, chairman of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice and former New Castle County Council president. Bullock called the hearing in the wake of a Feb. 1 inmate uprising at Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, where four correctional officers were taken hostage and one killed during a nearly 20-hour standoff.

Nearly 200 people crowded into pews at Bullock’s Canaan Baptist Church south of Wilmington to voice their concerns about conditions at Vaughn, the state’s largest prison for men, and Delaware’s other correctional facilities.

While a couple of speakers mentioned their dismay at the violence that led to the death of Lt. Steven Floyd, all had harsh words for Delaware politicians and prison leaders and employees.

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Two different speakers recited names of more than a dozen guards they described as violent and abusive. Others described beatings and blows and other punishments such as prolonged isolation or exposure to the cold that was  inflicted on prisoners who did not deserve such harsh punishment.

Tony Dunn, a former inmate who worked in the Vaughn kitchen said he was formed to serve inmates a meal known as “loaf,” which he said was to inedible that he wouldn’t “even feed it to pigs.”

Many said prisoners are not receiving the care they need for serious medical and psychiatric problems. Others described a dearth of educational, vocational, substance abuse treatment and other rehabilitative programs to prepare inmates for their eventual release.

Some said that in the aftermath of the uprising, their sons and brothers have faced harsher treatment, including intensified physical and psychological abuse.

“They’re people, not animals,” one woman said.

State police and prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into the takeover that led to the death of Floyd, who died of homicide by trauma, an autopsy has revealed.

Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, has launched an independent review and suggested reforms that call for tighter control of the prisoners — not for better treatment for them. His proposals include hiring 75 more correctional officers, buying new security and communications equipment, and instituting random security sweeps.

Meanwhile, Vaughn’s warden has been placed on administrative leave. Prison officials also said there have been resignations by 25 correctional officers — including at least 16 at Vaughn — as well as 29 staffers of the prison’s medical and mental health vendor, Connections Community Support Programs, Inc.

But Bullock said more needs to be done. While he urged members of the community to focus on education and learning job skills rather than the behaviors that lead to crime and incarceration, he said the comments he heard Monday and since the uprising have led him to suspect the Department of Correction has become the “Department of Punishment.”

Bullock said he might hold more hearings. He also suggested that the community must stand together and demand change.

“We may have to march on the governor’s mansion,” the pastor said to sustained applause. “We might have to rent some buses and go back to Dover. … Somebody has to be held accountable.”

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