WILMINGTON, Del. – Inmates at a maximum security prison in Delaware staged a "dry run" protest to gauge the response of prison officials two weeks before an uprising and hostage taking in which a prison guard was killed, an attorney for the state correctional officers union said Friday.
Bruce Rogers, an attorney for the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, said the protest last month at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center lasted for about two hours.
"Everybody just kind of shut down what they were supposed to be doing," said Rogers, describing how inmates gathered near a communal chow hall and refused to "lock-in" to their cells or obey other commands. The protest occurred in the same building where four Department of Correction workers were taken hostage two weeks later, Rogers said.
Rogers said the earlier protest ended only after lieutenants and captains who supervise rank-and-file COAD members responded and tried to settle the inmates down.
"We believe that was used as a test to see what the response of the department would be if they had a full-blown event," Rogers said.
Rogers said he believes correctional officers filed "multiple reports" about the incident, but that he is not aware of any sanctions or penalties imposed on inmates.
"One can reach the conclusion that a lack of response by the department kind of emboldened them to try something else," he said.
A DOC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the attorney's assertion.
Meanwhile, a lawyer representing a correctional officer taken hostage during the uprising said his client was diagnosed last week with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, and that it could be months before he can return to work.
Attorney Thomas Neuberger said a second client, another correctional officer taken hostage, was seen Friday by a psychiatrist.
Neuberger also said he is representing the family of Steven Floyd, a correctional officer who was killed, as well as three maintenance workers in the building at the time who Neuberger said were traumatized by events they witnessed.
Neuberger said the maintenance workers described being confronted by angry, masked inmates after responding to cries for help from Floyd, who had been seized by inmates and held in a closet.
"One of them had a shiv held to his throat, and all three feared for their lives," he said.
Neuberger said the maintenance workers had been working on a boiler when the uprising began. After being threatened by the inmates, one of the workers, who was wearing a respirator, threatened to spill a chemical mixture from a five-gallon container, telling inmates they would die if they breathed the fumes. Neuberger said the ruse prompted the inmates to retreat and allowed the maintenance workers to flee to the basement, where they barricaded themselves and establish radio or cell phone contact with emergency responders.
Neuberger said he plans to file wrongful death and survivor claims in federal court on behalf of Floyd's family, and that the correctional officers and maintenance workers deserve to be compensated for emotional distress, pain and suffering.
He also said he would be filing due process claims against state officials for putting prison workers at risk by ignoring chronic problems of understaffing and overcrowding at the prison, where a female counselor was taken hostage and raped by a serial rapist in 2004 before he was shot to death by a tactical officer.
"They've been screwing with the workers for 12 or 15 years and not giving a damn," said Neuberger, blaming past political leaders along with former and current DOC leaders for not taking problems in the prison system seriously.
"Instead of a rape, this time we're getting a murder," Neuberger added.
While not responding directly to Neuberger's claims, DOC spokeswoman Chelsea Hicks said in an email Friday that all of the recommendations made by a governor's task force established after the 2004 incident have been fulfilled.
Those recommendations, Hicks noted, included reviewing and updating policies and standard operating procedures, improving the radio communications system, mandating in-service officer training, increasing pat-downs and cell searches, and undertaking efforts to reduce attrition among correctional officers.