DOVER, Del. – On July 12, prison counselor Cassandra Arnold was held hostage for nearly seven hours and sexually assaulted by a serial rapist before a prison guard shot the inmate to death.
Over the next couple of days, the traumatized counselor received an outpouring of support that included a flower basket from the prison warden and a basket of snacks and a card from the state corrections commissioner.
But the reaction from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (search) was different. She has not spoken to Arnold or her family, and in an interview two days after the attack, she said, "In prisons, you almost expect this to happen."
The remarks drew an angry response from Arnold and quickly became a central issue in the Delaware governor's race. Minner's Republican opponent, Bill Lee, said the comment is reason enough not to elect the Democrat to a second term.
"Her reaction to the event, which was verbalized by her comment, and the insensitivity of never having contacted the victim ... is a very powerful statement to everybody, but certainly to women in general," said Lee, a retired judge.
The Delaware State News in Dover published the comment July 15 in a story in which Minner said "there are problems at every prison."
"This isn't something that is unique to Delaware," she continued. "In prisons, you almost expect this to happen. The people who work in our prisons are doing an outstanding job."
Minner spokesman Greg Patterson later said the governor was trying to emphasize that prisons are dangerous places.
The governor herself offered another explanation last week, saying her comment was in response to a question about why prison officials decided to manage the hostage standoff themselves, rather than turn it over to a state police unit.
"What I said is, that you train these people in prison because you expect these things to happen," Minner said.
The story with her initial comment makes no mention of training or what role that might have played in a decision about who was better prepared to respond to the hostage situation. The paper said it stands by the accuracy of its reporting.
Minner also said she initially did not try to contact Arnold because she wanted to respect her privacy. In a recent debate, Minner said she called Correction Commissioner Stanley Taylor two days after the incident to get Arnold's phone number, but was told the family did not want to talk to state officials.
"I wish now that I had insisted that I was allowed to talk to her," Minner said. "I will always regret that I did not push that."
Arnold recently filed a civil rights lawsuit accusing Minner and prison officials of ignoring staffing shortages and security lapses that Arnold believes contributed to the attack. She said Minner's comments were insensitive.
"She made me feel like I was not a worthy person at all," Arnold said.
It is unclear how much the issue has hurt Minner because no major polls have been conducted.
But the governor's opponents have made it a major part of the campaign, blasting Minner in debates for not addressing chronic staffing shortages at prisons and for not holding anyone accountable for the incident. The union representing prison guards has endorsed Lee, and posted billboards up and down the state poking fun at prison staffing shortages.
Minner said her opponents are exploiting an unfortunate situation.
"I'm shocked that they're making the whole thing a campaign issue," she said. "It's ridiculous to keep playing it on the front page of the papers every day."
Minner also has come under criticism for creating a seven-member panel to look into prison problems. None of the panel members has experience or expertise in adult incarceration, and three have given money to Minner's re-election campaign.
Arnold has encouraged citizens to express their concerns about the prison system to officials, panel members and the media.
"And let them know, most of all, that you, the citizens of Delaware, will not tolerate a prison system in which the sort of misfortune that I experienced is `almost to be expected,"' Arnold wrote.