WILMINGTON, Del. (CN) – A group of correctional officers who were attacked in a prison riot in February claim Delaware officials are responsible for the uprising after ignoring warnings and reports about the state’s overburdened prison system.
Five officers and surviving family members of another one killed in the incident allege in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Delaware federal court that shortcomings at the state government level caused the violent inmate uprising.
In 2004, an inmate serving 660 years for rape managed to arm himself with an 8-inch shank, taking a female civilian counselor hostage for six and a half hours. He repeatedly raped her until a correctional officer managed to crawl through the ceiling and shoot the inmate as he was attempting to murder the woman.
At the time, Ruth Ann Minner, Delaware’s first female governor, responded to the incident by saying, “[i]n prisons, you almost expect this to happen,” according to Tuesday’s lawsuit.
Minner went on to create a task force in 2005 to investigate the root causes of the underlying problems in the state’s correctional system. It ultimately found that reliance on forced overtime and severe staff shortages led to the incident.
However, Minner’s administration failed to make any changes to the program, choosing instead to return millions of dollars in unspent funds to the state’s general fund, according to the complaint.
The plaintiff officers claim Minner’s successor, fellow Democrat and Delaware’s first Jewish governor, Jack Markell, made things even worse after taking over in 2009.
“During Markell’s administration, the overtime budget went from $13-14 million a year to $23 million a year,” the complaint states. “This was a result of a newly enacted policy decision by defendant Markell to rely upon even more overtime rather than to fill the critical shortfall of correctional officers.”
Markell also ordered that all key findings from the 2005 task force’s report be ignored “in order to deceive the public and the legislature into thinking that the conditions in [Delaware prisons]…were safe and secure for all involved,” according to the lawsuit.
Between 2009 and 2015, overtime hours in the state prison system grew from 500,000 to almost 800,000, and by 2017, almost 40 percent of staffing hours were filled via overtime, the plaintiffs say.
Markell also allegedly implemented a policy of not filling vacated positions within the system, justifying his decision as a money-saving measure.
The correctional officer’s union then stepped in, warning Markell and his staff that his policy “was going to result in the death of correctional officers,” specifically at the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna, the lawsuit states.
According to the complaint, Markell seemed more concerned with saving money and face with the voters than with protecting the lives of prison staff.
The union issued final grave warnings last year, reportedly stating that “sometime between January and July [of 2017], the wheels are going to come off …assaults are dramatically increasing. We have been virtually ignored for the past eight years. This cannot continue. Someone is bound to be seriously injured – or even worse.”
Months later, as predicted, tragedy struck. On Feb. 1, inmates at the Delaware Correctional Center staged a fight between themselves and attacked officers who arrived to break it up. Lt. Steven R. Floyd was murdered by inmates during the ensuing chaos.
Two other officers were beaten and tortured while three more were imprisoned in the facility’s basement. A civilian counselor was also attacked and beaten in her office.
According to the complaint, an emergency force was ready to take the prison back and rescue Floyd, but current Gov. John Carney Jr. ordered them to stand down, halting the rescue attempt until the morning.
The prison riot finally ended around 5 a.m. on Feb. 2.
“SWAT teams from the Delaware State Police and the Maryland State Police stormed Building C and ended the uprising,” the complaint states. “SWAT was able to rescue the female civilian counselor, Patricia May, whom Officer Smith had valiantly fought to protect the day before. However, Sgt. Floyd’s body was found and he was pronounced dead soon thereafter, the victim of a homicide.”
Floyd’s time of death has not yet been determined, as the governor allegedly refused to release autopsy results to his family.
The officers and family members allege violations of the 14th Amendment. They seek compensatory and punitive damages, restitution, an apology and the release of Floyd’s autopsy report.
“Defendants consciously disregarded a substantial and a great risk of serious harm, which was obvious, apparent and grave,” the complaint states. “Defendants’ actions demonstrated a protracted failure even to care.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Thomas C. Crumplar and Raeann C. Warner of Jacobs & Crumplar, with the Neuberger Firm assisting. Neither they nor the governor’s office returned calls for comment Thursday.
Markell left office in January and has been a vocal critic of President Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric and base, penning multiple op-ed pieces reflecting his opposition. Markell was succeeded by Carney, who is not a party to the lawsuit.