Three weeks of silence--no phone calls or mail came in or went out of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna after the fatal uprising that killed Lt. Steven Floyd.
Following the fatal uprising, the Delaware Department of Correction went into a strict lockdown during which time inmates said they were not granted access to the telephone, writing utensils, or even regular showers.
Towards the end of February, the first letters from inmates following the fatal inmate uprising began to pour into the WDEL newsroom; in those letters, inmates said they've been brutally beaten and denied basic human rights, including medical care, since the riot.
WDEL received dozens of letters from prisoners following the Vaughn riot. Here, we'll share what the prisoners have alleged happened, in their own words. Note: Names and SBI numbers have been redacted to protect prisoners' identities out of fear of retaliation.
Dover attorney Steve Hampton got the letters too. Stacks of them.
"It's over 100, I'm sure," he said. "I'm still getting four or five every day."
Hampton said the letters are consistent in their horrific descriptions of both the riot, during which many inmates claim to have been hostages, and the events that occurred afterwards, as officials breached the prison and regained control.
"They thought they were going to be rescued," detailed Hampton. "Instead of being rescued, they were pretty much brutalized by--whether it was police or correctional officers that came in--whoever came in ended up zip-tying their wrists with the ties very tightly, and their legs, so they ended up, essentially being hogtied, and then they were beaten and kicked, and verbally abused."
Many of the prisoners claimed in their letters that they'd been left outside for more than an hour, mostly unclothed, in the middle of February.
"They've talked of some really, pretty poor living conditions in the SHU--no food or cold food--reduced portions," said Hampton.
In one of the letters, a mother said her son lost 27 lbs. since the riot.
"Offenders receive nutritionally sound meals as approved by the contracted nutritionist," said DOC spokeswoman Chelsea Hicks in an email. "Additionally, meals are provided in accordance with the meal schedule; of which includes both hot and cold meals. That said, some lunch meals may consist of cold sandwiches (e.g. bologna); however, the menu includes a plethora of meals that are served hot."
But that's no reassurance for Hampton, who plans to take on the Delaware Department of Correction--something he's done numerous times previously--on behalf of inmates.
"I guess, part of the fact is, that nobody else is doing it," he said. "If there were...others doing this and pushing the administration to correct these things, then I wouldn't feel like I need to do it, but I do have a feeling that if I don't nobody's going to push it."
The conditions in Vaughn have never been good, Hampton said, but they've since gotten far worse.
"The problems I've been complaining about for 10, 12 years are still there. They weren't going around in a concerted fashion beating them up and shocking them so I would say yes, day-to-day, the conditions have gotten a lot worse than they were before," he said. "I mean there were some legitimate complaints they had about crowding and how they were being treated by particular officers but they weren't complaints of being brutalized every day, which almost seems to be the complaint now."
Inmates have also alleged Correctional Emergency Response Teams, known as CERT teams, have raided prison cells, spraying pepper spray under the door, and assaulted inmates during shakedowns.
"Sometimes shocking them with a shield," said Hampton, referring to an electrified riot shield weapon used by the correctional officers. "They've been doing that for no reason other than apparently, they can..it's supposed to be something you use in a riot if you have to, not something you do when you're taking a guy out of a cell who's not resisting."
"A lot of stories of being strip searched, being verbally abused and harassed...and additional threats, often, they are told things that: 'This is because of what happened, this is because of Floyd, this is because of what you did. Who's in charge now?'--just a litany of abuse towards the inmates."
"We have an inmate, complaining that after he, I guess, got his hand broken early on, it took forever to get some type of a cast or a splint on it, and then when the CERT team came in, they took it, he said, so it's just a matter of frustration day in and day out," he said.
Hampton harkens back to the case of Vaughn inmate, Anthony Pierce, who he said DOC officials knowingly allowed a small tumor to grow as large as his head.
"They called him the brother with two heads--that's how horrendous it was, and until they finally got him to a doctor and got him to a surgeon, they weren't able to save his life, and the surgeons I got said, 'Yeah, if we got it early, we could've fixed it,' said Hampton. "And I thought to myself: if this doesn't cause them to change things, nothing ever will, and they didn't change anything. So if that didn't do it, I don't know."
Inmates have told Hampton that they've filed grievances that have also been ignored.
The Delaware Department of Correction refused an interview request with WDEL for this story. They also refused a Freedom of Information request for a docket of grievances, evidence of any backlog, and information on how they're resolved, citing those records are exempt.
In an e-mail, a DOC spokeswoman said sick calls are being addressed.
"Sick call requests are picked up by medical personnel seven days a week and time stamped upon receipt. Sick call requests are to be triaged by a Registered Nurse within 24 hours of receipt. Similar to a person in the community scheduling a doctor's appointment, requests to be seen are scheduled in order of importance, and emergencies are prioritized," said Hicks.
Hampton said he's still in the process of compiling information for the class-action lawsuit he intends to file, but a settlement will require consistent rules for use of force and enforcement of those rules.
"Right now, there are rules...and they're violating all of them," alleged Hampton.
"When the Department of Correction employees are allowed to around beating people and throwing their property out--they're doing a lot of the same things that got these inmates in prison in the first place, so, why are we tolerating that type of behavior in one group--who's supposed to be following the law? And not tolerating it at all with inmates?" asked Hampton. "It's treating the criminals by acting criminally toward them."
In response to the allegations, officials representing the prison categorically denied them, saying they're highly trained in the DOC's Use of Force policy, and only use force when necessary.
"Inmates at JTVCC are not being beaten by correctional officers," said Hicks in an e-mail. "There are occasions when an inmate's behavior warrants physical contact; however, our officers are trained in accordance with the DOC Use of Force policy. Under such policy, officers employ the least amount of physical contact necessary to appropriately deescalate a situation."
Hampton said he's skeptical of DOC's alleged behavior, calling it counterproductive, given that they need inmates' help to complete several ongoing investigations into Floyd's death and the circumstances surrounding the riot.
"I'm not sure how easy it's going to be for them to investigate with the brutality they've shown the inmates since this has happened, I'm not sure why any of them would want to cooperate with the investigation. They've been treated horrendously, and to say, they're going to help now put somebody away who indirectly brought all this on them, I'm not sure they're going to help...there's a disincentive for them to do it."
Hampton said the riot is not the result of a lack of correctional officers or an alleged fall-out from any agreements between the DOC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Delaware Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI). He said the uprising is the direct result of a simmering of frustrations among the inmates..
"It didn't happen at Vaughn because there aren't enough correctional officers and there wasn't enough security--it happened because of the way the prisoners were being treated," said Hampton. "Eventually, if they keep it up, there will be some more open revolt; people aren't going to take this forever."