State leaders are to blame for Steven Floyd’s death

February 27, 2017

You want to know who's to blame for the death of Correction Officer Steven Floyd? Answer: The leadership of the General Assembly and recent governors.

You want to know why? Because, for political reasons, they have consistently starved the Department of Correction for the money needed to pay corrections officers more, and to hire more of them. Two immediate points, and then some additional ones:

One. Prison guards aren't paid enough. We hire them, train them, and then they scoot to other states that pay more. Being a prison guard is both unpleasant and dangerous. It's especially dangerous if the prison is understaffed. That is when the prison gangs take over from the guards. And if there is little financial incentive to do better, it is just easier to lie back and let the cellblock "kings" do what they do.

Two. This shortfall is made up by mandatory overtime. Whether this is 12-hour shifts or double shifts, fatigue sets in, things get sloppy and then trouble starts.

Doubtless, Delaware's prisons aren't as bad as some places one could name. Such as Stateville in Joliet, Ill., or Angola in Louisiana. Or Macalester in Oklahoma. Or Attica in upstate New York. But way too little rehabilitation occurs in most prisons, including in Delaware's three. Or four, if you include the Morris Unit in Dover. Not to mention the Baylor unit for women. It is difficult or nearly impossible to pick up a useful skill in any of them.

Some years ago, I asked the corrections commissioner of the time, Stan Taylor, about this. He was rueful. "We don't do a very good job of that," he said.

It doesn't get much publicity, especially favorable publicity, but having and running a prison system is a core duty of any state government. The federal government has prisons, too, and often they are much better known, broadly speaking. However, the vast majority of prisoners are in state prisons because the vast majority of criminal laws are state laws, not federal. Murder, rape, assault, burglary and armed robbery are all state laws.

Prisons like Smyrna and Georgetown house a spectrum and variety of inmates. Note here that the Sussex Correctional Institution, or SCI in Georgetown, has a maximum- security section, not something that is widely known. Delaware does not have the kind of step-down system that features a maximum-security place, medium security and minimum security. Nor do we have prison farms, which are found in many states.

Nor does Delaware have county jails, which are common elsewhere in the country. County jails traditionally house misdemeanor offenders as well as persons awaiting arraignment and trial. Or sentencing.

Prisoners exhibit a variety of situations. Some are very dangerous and are usually found in the maximum-security sections. Some are harmless. Some can be seen on road crews, which is considered a privilege in Delaware because it is a job that makes the time pass faster. Too little work in Delaware's prisons.

Then, of course, there are the prisoners who use the system as a university of crime. An unsuccessful burglar when you arrive, you may pick up some skills from better burglars while incarcerated.

Then, too, there are the confirmed sociopaths. Our definition of a sociopath here is a person (usually a man) who knows the difference between right and wrong, but who simply doesn't care. Usually, when interviewed by a parole board or parole officer, they deny committing the crime. Usually this is a lie, but usually, too, they've lied about a lot of things or most things throughout their lives.

Then, too, there are the prisoners who simply want to serve their time and get on with their lives.

Sometimes that means going straight when released. Sometimes it means returning to crime when released. Some will seek more education. But by that, we don't mean a college education. What many need to do is finish high school.

The Correctional Officers Association of Delaware is right about one thing. That is that Delaware's prisons need a lot of reforming. These reforms will cost money, perhaps a lot of money.

Given their track record, it seems unlikely that the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly will be interested in that kind of spending.

Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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