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SCI inmate charged with punching officer

17 prison employees resigning or retrieving since Feb. 1 seige
A prisoner was charged Feb. 13 with punching a correction officer at Sussex Correctional Institution. RON MACARTHUR PHOTO
February 17, 2017

An inmate at Sussex Correctional Institution faces charges after officials say he punched a correction officer Feb. 13.

The incident happened at 5:37 p.m. when an inmate in custody for about two months hit an officer. There was no indication of serious injury, said Jayme Gravell, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction.

The inmate was charged with assault in a detention facility and harassment of a law enforcement K-9.

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the inmate was taunting a correctional K-9 patrol dog during the inmates' dinner. Two officers removed the inmate from the dinner area, Klopp said. The inmate entered his cell, and while one of the officers was speaking to him, Klopp said, the inmate charged and punched the side of the officer's neck. After a short struggle, he said, officers gained control of the inmate, who continued his verbal abuse and also threatened medical staff. One officer was scraped and bruised, the other was not injured.

Inmates continue to refuse to follow legitimate instructions from correctional officers. Threats, taunts and assaults are a daily way of life in our prisons. It is as if the events of the past two weeks never occurred,” Klopp said, referring to a 19-hour siege Feb.1. “The response thus far to these horrible events has been lacking. Press conferences and special commissions don't address the needs of the day. Our officers are not safe in the prisons of our state. Period.”

Delaware State Police and the Department of Correction continue separate investigations into the prison siege at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in which a correction officer was killed.

On Feb. 14, Gov. John Carney signed an executive order appointing retired Delaware Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely and retired Family Court Judge William L. Chapman Jr. to lead an independent review of events that led to inmates gaining control of one building and taking four hostages. Lt. Steven Floyd was found dead following the 19-hour siege. Their review will not begin until the state police criminal investigation is complete.

Carney can appoint more members at his pleasure, the order states.

The order requires a preliminary report be issued by June 1 and a final report be completed by Aug. 15. The order states the report should provide recommendations for improving security at Vaughn center and other prison facilities.

Sgt. Richard Bratz said police continue with the criminal investigation, and he would not say whether it will be done by June 1. “All information will be disseminated as it becomes available,” he said.

Klopp has said previously that the correction officers union does not want another task force report such as one issued after the 2004 rape and assault of a counselor at Vaughn center. He said recommendations for improved safety, salaries and retention rates for officers were ignored by officials, and is a reason for the breakdown in security today.

Klopp also blames a 2016 agreement with the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society, which required more services and time outside of solitary confinement for mental health patients and caused increasingly unsafe conditions at the prison. Klopp said even though inmates involved in the murder of Floyd were not on the mental health roster, as a result of the agreement made by Gov. Jack Markell, then-Commissioner Robert Coupe and Attorney General Matt Denn, there is no space to house dangerous inmates.

Room has been made to house mental health inmates, he said, minimizing the use of higher security buildings and housing units to segregate mental health inmates. He said this has also caused members of rival factions to be housed on the same tier, reduced penalties for misbehavior by inmates and put mental health advocates between inmates and officers.

“To say the inmates involved in the riot were not on the mental health roster misses the issue,” Klopp said in answer to a previous DOC statement. “The effect of the ACLU/CLASI - Markell Administration agreement is to make our prisons more dangerous places.”

Kathryn MacRea, executive director for the ACLU, said she does not understand why officers are saying the settlement agreement helped cause the hostage situation.

“I feel the settlement has been used as a scapegoat for longterm problems in the prison,” she said. “This has been building for 50 years.”

MacRae said she could say whether the agreement has made the prison more dangerous, adding the ACLU does not work inside the prison on a regular basis. 

“We understand that the hostage crisis and the death of Sgt. Floyd has been a traumatic experience for everyone associated with the DDOC. But the fact that the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware is making false claims about the terms of the agreement to attack DDOC, former-Commissioner Robert Coupe and Attorney General Matt Denn is troubling to say the least,” MacRae said. “As a result of mass incarceration policies, overcrowding and chronic understaffing have been known problems within the prison system for decades. It is utterly untrue and irresponsible for COAD to say that the settlement agreement turned control of our prison facilities over to inmates.” 

Since Feb. 1, DOC's Gravell said, eight correction officers have voluntary resigned from their posts. Three resigned immediately and the rest provided notice, she said. All of these officers were assigned to Vaughn center.

Additionally, she said, eight correction officers submitted paperwork to retire in 2017 – one immediately. One teacher also chose to retire. All but two of these employees were assigned to Vaughn center, Gravell said.

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