A day-long hostage standoff inside Delaware’s largest state prison for men ended early Thursday after state police stormed the building, finding one corrections official dead and rescuing another who was being held hostage.
The standoff began Wednesday morning at around 10:30 a.m. when inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, about 40 miles south of Wilmington, took four corrections department workers – and potentially some fellow prisoners – hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.
Prisons across the state were locked down due to the standoff in Smyrna. Dozens of inmates were released as the situation progressed, along with two corrections officials who were being held, the Department of Correction said in a statement overnight. It was not immediately clear how many of the inmates held in the seized prison block were hostages as opposed to hostage-takers.
The Delaware State Police breached the building shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday, according to the corrections department. A Department of Correction employee who was being held was “safely rescued and is being examined at a local hospital,” where she is alert and talking the agency said in a statement.
Police found the remaining hostage, an unidentified corrections officer, unresponsive when they entered, and he was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. Authorities said they would release more information later Thursday morning at a news conference.
Gov. John Carney, D, in a statement Thursday, said that the person who died was a correctional officer.
“I’m praying hard for the fallen officer’s family,” Carney said. “This serves as a tragic reminder that members of law enforcement risk their lives every day on behalf of the people of Delaware. We will stand by the fallen officer’s family and fellow law enforcement officers during what is an extremely difficult time.”
Carney said officials were now focusing on trying to learn “what happened and how this happened,” and vowed to “make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”
The hostage-takers had said their rebellion was a direct response to President Donald Trump.
“Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now,” they said during the second of two manifesto-like phone calls to a local newspaper. “We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”
The inmates demanded education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending, according to audio of the calls posted online by the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware.
The Vaughn prison is the largest adult male correctional facility in the state, housing about 2,500 minimum, medium and maximum security inmates, according to the Department of Correction website.
It is the landing place for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime and those who have been sentenced to death. Executions are carried out there, according to the website, although the death penalty in Delaware has been struck down by the state’s Supreme Court.
Inmate complaints about treatment within the prison, substandard medical care and poor record-keeping have increased in the past year, Stephen Hampton, an attorney from Dover who has represented prisoners in civil rights cases, told the Associated Press.
Rules prohibiting the commingling of pretrial inmates and those who have already been sentenced mean that detainees awaiting their day in court are locked up for much of the day, Hampton told the AP. These people do not have access to gyms or libraries and, Hampton said; there “gets to be a tremendous pressure on these inmates.”
Sometimes they’ll take a plea deal just to circumvent the restrictions, Hampton told the AP.
A former Vaughn inmate also called the News Journal amid the chaos of the hostage situation Wednesday and told the newspaper that the takeover was likely the result of unresolved tensions finally bubbling over. The News Journal did not identify him, but reported that he lived in Building C, the same area of the prison where the hostages were taken.
The former inmate told the News Journal that inside the prison, conditions are poor, inmates have limited access to education programs and issues with overcrowding mean even those who exhibit good behavior aren’t able to be transferred to medium-security buildings.
“They just got to the point where they’re fed up,” he told the local newspaper. “If DOC is worried about the officers and not their demands, if nothing changes, I guarantee there will be another hostage situation in a different building.”
At a news conference Wednesday evening, Delaware Gov. Carney had said the first priority was to ensure the safety of the corrections officers still trapped inside the prison. After that, “dialogue can occur,” said Robert Coupe, head of the state’s Homeland Security Department.
Coupe said authorities had been communicating via radio with the hostage-takers throughout the standoff and said that Building C has televisions where the inmates could be watching the news conference live.
His message to them was simple: “We want to resolve this peacefully.”
“Once this matter is resolved safely, then that will be the time to talk if the inmates want to talk about conditions, privileges, those types of things,” Coupe said, reported the AP.
Carney said he had spoken with the families of the hostages.
“As you can imagine,” Carney said, “it’s been very difficult for them as well.”
The standoff began Wednesday morning when correctional employees responded to a radio call for help from a fellow correctional officer inside Building C and were taken hostage, Delaware State Police spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz said during a news conference.
One of those employees was released at 2:25 p.m. Wednesday, reported the News Journal. Three hours later, eight inmates were released, and at 8 p.m. a second employee and 19 other inmates were let go.
Fourteen additional inmates were released from Building C at 12:30 a.m. Thursday, bringing the total number of released inmates to 46, according to a statement from the Department of Correction. Eighty-two inmates had remained inside, officials said, but it was unclear how many of those were hostages. Building C holds more than 100 inmates.
By the end of the day Wednesday, the hostage situation was gaining widespread attention, especially on social media, where people used the hashtag #VaughnRebellion to talk about the siege.
Catherine Simon, a Smyrna resident and the wife of a prison staff lieutenant, told the News Journal her husband emailed her about the takeover to tell her he was safe. There is fear, she told the local newspaper, among staff and their family members.
“It’s been a lot of Facebook messages, texts and phone calls to see if anyone has heard from this one or whether that one is OK,” Simon told the News Journal. “It’s really scary, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be ending anytime soon.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler, Mark Berman