Uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Delaware

Uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Delaware

James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna, Delaware
February 1, 2017

Portions of this article originally appeared on It’s Going Down

Prisoners in the C-building take control of their unit and hold staff hostage in an uprising that lasts over 18 hours. They call the media, release a list of demands, and explain their actions as motivated by their conditions of confinement as well as the election of Donald Trump as President. One prison guard, Steven Floyd, is killed by prisoners during the uprising.

Handcuffed prisoners lie face down on the ground after prison guards regain control of the prison

The uprising comes after numerous nonviolent protests by prisoners fail to lead to the prison addressing their grievances. In the aftermath of the uprising, corrections officers allege that prisoners have been staging inmate-on-inmate fights in the prison yard to find vulnerabilities in the guards’ emergency response. On the day of the uprising, prisoners cover their faces with masks and rush the two officers letting them back in from the prison yard—a key moment of vulnerability when the prisoner-to-guard ratio is at its lowest.

After more than eight months, on October 17th, an indictment is handed down by the Delaware Department of Justice that charges sixteen prisoners with murder charges for the death of a correctional officer. Those sixteen along with two other prisoners are also facing counts of kidnapping, conspiracy and rioting.

In an interview, Thomas Gordon, a former prisoner at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center speaks to the desperation of prisoners there and the lack of other avenues for addressing prisoner concerns:

“Sadly in an institution that is run solely off of fear and solely off of aggression and solely off of violence, the only way that they’ll listen is if you, in return, apply some sort of force or some sort of threat of force yourself. And that’s just the nature the beast within the present institution because they respect nothing else. They respect nothing else.”

On October 21, 2018, the Associated Press reports that one of the prisoners indicted following the riot, but not charged with murder, had plead guilty to the charges against him and was acting as a witness against the other prisoners in the case. The prisoner, Royal Downs, is held in an undisclosed location separate from his co-defendants and his court records are sealed.

Trial for the first block of defendants began Monday, October 22, 2018. The three prisoners on trial are Jarreau Ayers, 36, who is currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, Deric Forney, 28, who is serving 11 years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and Dwayne Staats, 35, who is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder.

On November 20th, the verdict was handed down for the first trial block. Dwayne Staats is found guilty on two of the three counts of first degree murder he was charged with. Staats and Jarreau Ayers are also found guilty of riot, conspiracy, assault of correctional officers and kidnapping. Deric Forney is found not guilty on all charges.

Jury selection for the second trial block began on January 7th. The defendants were Abadiah Miller, 26, John Bramble, 29, Kevin Berry, 28, and Abednego Baynes, 26. Each faced murder charges for the death of Correctional Officer Steven Floyd as well as assault, riot, kidnapping and conspiracy to riot. On February 19, their trial wrapped up without any convictions. Abednego Baynes and Kevin Berry were acquitted on all counts. For John Bramble or Obadiah Miller, the jury could not reach a verdict on the riot and assault charges and acquitted the two men of the rest of their charges.

On March 16, 2019, the prosecution announced it would drop charges against all but three of the remaining defendants. The remaining three men will be tried in two separate trials with Roman Shankaras being tried in April and Lawrence Michaels and Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz going on trial in October.

Also in March of 2019 Vaughn installed 700 new cameras at the cost of $2.5 million dollars. This project was recommended by the independent review commissioned by the Delaware governor in the wake of the uprising.

In April of 2019 a federal judge claimed that a lawsuit filed by prisoner Donald Parkell had supported claims and allowed the suit to proceed. Parkell’s suit, filed just two weeks after the Vaughn uprising, alleges that Perry Phelps and Robert Coupe, the current and former commissioners, respectively, of the Delaware Department of Corrections, had undermined a 2016 court settlement that required increased security, better mental health services at the prison, and more out-of-cell time for prisoners placed in restrictive housing.

Rally to support Vaughn prisoners on February 2, 2017. (Source: Joe Piette)


Updated (4/11/19)


What Happened At Vaughn Prison?“, Jacobin, February 2, 2018.

Prison siege choreographed; officers beaten for hours“, Delaware Online, February 24, 2017.

VIDEO: What really happened inside James T. Vaughn during the inmate uprising“, WDEL, February 24, 2017.

What really caused Delaware’s prisoners to revolt at Vaughn Correctional Center“, Delaware Online, February 17, 2017.

 “Jury delivers verdict in first Vaughn prison trialDelaware Public Media, November 20, 2018.

UPDATE: DOC: Inmates indicted in 2017 riot transferred from Smyrna facility“, VMDT, October 31, 2017.

6 inmates plead not guilty after deadly Delaware prison riot”, Fox News, November 9, 2017.

Inmates charged in deadly prison riot stage brief hunger strike“, Fox 29, August 1, 2018.

Delaware prison riot defendant pleaded guilty months ago“, Associated Press, October 5, 2018.

Upcoming trials on deadly Vaughn prison riot spark hope for more of the story“, Delaware News Journal, October 8, 2018.

Jury selection begins for Vaughn riot trial“, Delaware Public Media, October 8, 2018.

Long-awaited Vaughn prison riot trial begins Monday“, Delaware State News, October 20, 2018.

Vaughn prison riot trial begins Monday: What to know“, Delaware News Journal, October 21, 2018.

First Vaughn Prison Revolt Trial Begins“, Unicorn Riot, October 23, 2018.

Inmate, potential witness in prison riot trial, found dead“, Delaware State News, November 9, 2018.

“‘The uprising needed to happen’: Staats admits to masterminding fatal Vaughn prison riot“, Delaware News Talk, November 14, 2018.

No Convictions in Second Prison Riot Trial“, Delmarva Public Radio, February 19, 2019.

Most inmates accused in Delaware prison riot no longer face charges” WHYY, March 16, 2019.

Two years after fatal prison riot, 700 cameras installed in Delaware’s largest prison“. WHYY, March 26, 2019.

Stark Greenlights Inmate Claim Against Officials Stemming From Prison Uprising“. Delaware Law Weekly, April 2, 2019.