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Hostage standoff in Delaware prison ends with one corrections officer dead

A standoff at a men's prison in Delaware came to a deadly end in the early morning of Feb. 2. This is what's known about the 15-hour ordeal. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
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A day-long hostage standoff inside Delaware’s largest state prison for men ended early Thursday after state police stormed the building, finding a veteran corrections officer dead and rescuing another official who was being held hostage.

Authorities said they were not able to immediately release a motive for the attack, nor were they able to say how many inmates were involved, adding that every inmate in the building at the time is considered a suspect as the investigation gets underway.

The standoff began Wednesday about 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, possibly, some fellow prisoners — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings. They were wielding “sharp instruments,” officials said Thursday. Officials did not elaborate on these weapons.

Early Thursday, the siege ended after police breached the building and rescued a female staff member who was not injured. They also found Sgt. Steven R. Floyd, a 16-year veteran of the Delaware Department of Correction, but he was unresponsive.

Floyd, 47, was declared dead a short time later, Perry Phelps, the state’s correction commissioner, said during emotional remarks at a Thursday morning briefing.

“We lost one of our family members, and it pains my heart to make these statements,” said Phelps, who paused to compose himself while discussing the standoff and, after, wiped tears from his face.

Officials did not immediately elaborate on a cause of death for Floyd, who spent his entire tenure with the corrections department at the facility where he died. They said more information would be released after an autopsy.

Prisons across the state were locked down because of the standoff. Dozens of inmates left the building in Smyrna as the situation progressed, along with two of the four corrections officials who were being held, according to state officials. Three maintenance workers hiding in the basement were able to make their way to the roof, where they were rescued, authorities said.

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Hostage-takers had apparently delivered a message to a local newspaper saying that their rebellion was a response to President Trump’s policies and concerns about what his administration would mean for the future of the prison.

“Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now,” they said during the second of two manifesto-like phone calls to the News Journal newspaper in Wilmington. “We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”

Inmates were demanding 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.

These demands given to the newspaper were similar to what inmates were telling police during negotiations conducted through a radio taken from a hostage, Delaware’s Homeland Security secretary, Robert Coupe, said at the Thursday morning briefing.

Coupe said that while authorities were negotiating with the inmates — at one point turning on the water in response to a demand they had made — police were also preparing a tactical plan to storm the T-shaped facility and rescue the remaining hostages.

He also said that inmates were trying to stall the police, who knew that one hostage was still alive but were growing concerned without any word about Floyd’s condition.

Police came up with a plan to use a corrections department backhoe to knock down a wall inmates had built in an entryway using metal footlockers filled with water once it was turned back on, Coupe said. They knocked down the wall and, within two minutes, had removed the female staff member from the building.

“We are happy to say she was not injured in this ordeal, and I will go as far as to say that there were actually inmates that shielded this victim,” said Coupe, who did not identify her.

There were 120 inmates in the building during the siege, and they are all considered suspects, Coupe said. None of the inmates suffered any reported injuries when police stormed the building, he said, and it is unclear if any inmates were being held as hostages.

Officials vowed a thorough investigation to figure out what unfolded in the prison and to find out what can be done to make the state’s correctional facilities — and their employees — safe going forward.

“Today we mourn,” Gov. John Carney (D) said at the briefing. “And tomorrow and for a long time going forward, we also have to investigate what happened here, determine the facts to make sure that it never happens again. The best way that we can honor Sgt. Steven Floyd is to do this work diligently, together and expeditiously.”

Coupe said that the investigation would try to figure out “how the takeover occurred,” and said that it was too early to know if this was a planned event or something that spontaneously erupted. There are cameras inside the facility, and any video footage will be part of the investigation, he said.

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, a lawyer 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 probably was 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 that 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.”

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.

This story is developing and has been updated since it was first published.

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