John C. Carney, Jr. (D-DE). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Gov. John Carney Tuesday named two former Delaware judges to head an independent investigation of a takeover at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center earlier this month that left a corrections officer dead.
Former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely and William L. Chapman Jr., a former Family Court judge, will be tasked with finding the “causes” of the incident and recommending changes to security protocols at Delaware’s prisons, the governor said at a press conference.
The judges are expected to submit their initial findings by July 1, with a full report to follow by mid-August, according to an executive order Carney signed in his Wilmington offices. That timeline, he said, would provide the governor’s office time to work with the General Assembly and the state’s budget-makers to take “action” before a final report is published.
“We will take this report seriously and act with urgency to improve the security of our correctional facilities and ensure the safety of our employees,” Carney said.
The investigation would launch once an ongoing criminal probe is completed, he said.
Tuesday morning’s announcement came nearly two weeks after inmates on Feb. 1 seized control of JTVCC’s Building C for more than 18 hours, taking four Department of Correction workers hostage. Prisoners released two of the hostages, and one was rescued when authorities retook the building just before dawn on Feb. 2.
A fourth hostage, Sgt. Steven Floyd, was found unresponsive and pronounced dead. An autopsy revealed that Floyd had died of trauma, but officials have not provided any further details about his death.
The Delaware State Police has been conducting a full criminal investigation into the incident with the help of the Delaware Department of Justice, which will be responsible for bringing charges in the case. All 120 inmates housed in the building are considered suspects, but the Attorney General’s Office has declined to comment on the investigation or provide a rough timeline of when it would conclude.
The DOC has also launched an internal probe into the takeover, which officials believed was planned in advance.
The fallout from the siege has placed significant pressure on the new administration, and it has reignited a public debate about prison staffing and retention, just as state lawmakers engage in an intense round of budget talks in Dover.
Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said earlier this month that, on any given day, the DOC is operating with about 90 positions unfilled, and officers routinely fill the void by working overtime. Low pay and dangerous conditions have made it difficult to attract new officers and retain veteran staff in Delaware prisons, he said.
Just this week, The News Journal reported that at least 17 DOC employees have either quit or filed for early retirement since the takeover.
On Tuesday, Carney stressed the importance of independence in the judge’s investigation, and he provided few details on what is expected to be a broad looks at the state’s policies and procedures. When pressed, however, he did indicate that staffing and retention would be a part of the review.
“It’s on us to make sure we provide as safe conditions as possible,” for guards and DOC employees, Carney said.
The DOC and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security would be expected to “cooperate fully” with the efforts, Carney said. The governor also said he was having discussions to determine if any immediate actions can be taken as the investigations proceed.
News of the independent probe, however, has done little to ease the concerns of a faith-based coalition that is calling on the federal government to launch its own outside investigation into conditions at JTVCC.
Christopher Bullock, chair of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice, said on Feb. 10 that his group would send a letter this month to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice asking for yet another review. Bullock’s main concerns, he said, were ensuring transparency and truthfulness from the state.
“We don’t believe the state can investigate itself,” he said in an interview.
Bullock said coalition members planned to reach out to the governor’s office this week, but a spokesman for Carney on Tuesday said that no calls had yet been made. Carney, the spokesman said, was aware of the group’s concerns, but any communications should be rerouted to the judges.
Ridgely, who served 10 years on the state’s high court before retiring in 2015, now works as senior counsel with DLA Piper in Wilmington. Chapman, now with Potter Anderson & Corroon, served for two decades as a family court judge and is a former deputy attorney general in the state DOJ.
Both judges said they were committed to conducting an exhaustive investigation.
“We will take a full and thorough look at what happened,” Ridgely said. “We will take it seriously and act with urgency.”