What Comes After the Vaughn Prison Riot?
February 6, 2017 (Fault Lines) –American criminal justice policy pretty much runs on animal instinct. When bad thing happens, hit bad thing with prison. When bad thing happens again, hit bad thing harder with longer prison. The urge to punish is so instinctive that we rarely stop to ask whether this default is effective.
However, as Delaware officials respond to the Vaughn prison takeover, they should really take the time to ask if punishment on top of punishment is the best way to keep their prisoners, facilities, and corrections officers safe.
At 10:30 am on Wednesday, officers at Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Facility responded to a “major disturbance” that ended with four corrections officers being taken hostage. Two hostages were released and one more was rescued after tactical teams stormed the facility on Thursday morning. The last hostage died of as yet undetermined causes shortly after being rescued.
Prisoners offered a range of reasons for the takeover, ranging from conditions at Vaughn to the election of Donald Trump, who inmates feared would make the prison even worse. While the Trump concern suggests a shaky grasp of how prisons in America are governed, there’s reason to believe their complaints about conditions were more than hot air.
Delaware prisons still use the “nutraloaf,” which most people wouldn’t feed to their dog, as part of their response to misconduct, even as many prisons have abandoned it. Additionally, both former inmates and union officials noted that Vaughn had longstanding staffing issues and inmates at had been increasingly upset with their conditions. If there is any substance to these complaints, state officials should keep them at the front of their mind as they plan their response.
After a riot, prisons have a few options for how to deal with inmates. The first option is the prison disciplinary process. These are administrative procedures that take place inside the prison with penalties ranging from fines to restriction in one’s cell or segregation in a specific housing unit. This can include solitary confinement, which is just about as brutal as US prisons get.
In theory, the Supreme Court set constitutional limits on the use of prison discipline in Turner v. Safely, which set out a four -part test for prison regulations based on whether the regulation is reasonably related to a government goal, whether inmates have reasonable alternatives for exercising the constitutional right the regulation infringes, how much the right will impact correctional operations, and whether the regulation represents an “exaggerated” response.
In practice through, this test pretty much puts prison discipline beyond the reach of courts, especially after a little number called Overton v. Bazzetta noted that a two-year ban on visitors for inmates guilty of two substance-abuse violations was not unreasonable. Given that the process is also overseen by officers and frequently weighed against inmates, it is not surprising that the internal discipline process vastly outstrips the use of criminal prosecution.
These procedures can be applied to riots as well: in North Carolina prisons for example, participation in a “riot, insurrection, work stoppage or group demonstration” can net you segregation for up to 60 days, privilege losses, and extra work.
This is not to say that prosecution is not an option. In fact, since the Delaware Supreme Court has generally approved the idea that prison sanctions are only administrative punishment, the state could actually hit prisoners with both a criminal prosecution and prison discipline without violating constitutional prohibitions on double jeopardy. Indeed, this mixed-strategy of disciplinary sanctions and follow-on prosecutions seems to be a common response to prison disturbances: following a riot, the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Facility announced that inmates would face discipline, with possible criminal charges to follow.
However, prison riot prosecutions are usually a selective business. The Adams County Correctional Facility riot that took place in Mississippi in 2012, was massive, involving as many as 300 prisoners, but since feds announced the final defendant had pled guilty in 2016, it seems that will be only four prosecutions. Even at Attica, one of the largest riots in American history where around 1,000 prisoners were involved, four years of investigation yielded charges for only 62 prisoners.
Nor does prosecution necessarily correlate to the seriousness of the riot. Corrections officers died at both Adams and Attica, but after a 2016 riot in Ohio’s Warren Correctional Institution, prosecutors managed 11 indictments for “aggravated rioting” despite there being no fatalities.
So where does that leave the inmates at Vaughn? The state currently considers 120 inmates potential suspects and the governor has promised to “hold accountable” anyone who was responsible. If some of those people were responsible for the corrections officer’s death, that’s fully justified. Murder remains as odious a crime as exists and since other inmates managed to not only take hostages without murder, but then shield those hostages from further harm, it makes sense to single out those who resorted to extreme violence.
Beyond that though, Delaware should do a quick double check on that old instinct to punish and ask what we expect this punishment to achieve. If the goal is to “send a message” or deter prisoners, as is frequently stated among the scholars of penal theory that is the internet comments section, then this is a project doomed to failure.
From Attica to Adams County, we’ve been crushing prison riots since at least 1929 and riots keep happening. Each time they do, prisoners cite just about the same array of complaints about abuse and mistreatment. Addressing these issues may not guarantee an end to riots, but going back to punishment will just get start the timer to the next one.