Prisons that foster a “culture of negativity” for both inmates and correctional workers make our communities less safe, warns a study of a Delaware prison revolt that took the life of a correctional officer earlier this year.
The report, an analysis conducted by the Police Foundation of the February 2017 hostage-taking incident at Delaware’s James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, argued that corrections officials must take more seriously their “core” role in avoiding the high rates of recidivism that contribute to mass incarceration in the U.S.
By nurturing a culture that emphasizes “trust and legitimacy” inside prison walls, correctional authorities can ensure that inmates won’t carry their resentment and bitterness with them when they return to civilian life—and reoffend, the report said.
“It is important for correctional executives and correctional officers to recognize that most incarcerated individuals will, at some point, be released from institutional confinement and free to re-enter society,” said the report, noting that roughly 600,000 to 700,000 individuals are released from state prisons annually.
The report warned that “adversarial” and hostile prison environments not only make such facilities more dangerous places to work “but also make communities less safe once offenders subjected to these conditions are released.”
Editor’s Note: A 30-state study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics based on data collected between 2005 and 2010 found that two-thirds of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years, and three-quarters within five years. The study was released in 2014.
Instead, the report continued, corrections authorities should create an environment in which disputes are handled fairly and transparently—applying what many criminologists call “procedural justice.”
The report was commissioned by Delaware Gov. John C. Carney after inmates at the Vaughn prison took workers hostage on February 1 in an 18-hour siege that left one corrections officer, Sgt. Steven Floyd, dead and several other workers and inmates injured. It was the second incident of inmate unrest at the facility in less than a month.
An independent review of the hostage-taking was conducted by a team from the Police Foundation, a think tank founded in 1970 to support innovative practices in policing. The review was led by retired Delaware Family Court Judge William L. Chapman, Jr. and former U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly, III.
The team issued a preliminary report in June. The final report was released September 1.
In his response to the final report, Gov. Carney acknowledged that “we have systemic issues within our correctional system that must be addressed, and we are committed to addressing them.”
The 54-page final report contained dozens of recommendations for specific improvements in training and staffing for corrections workers and in the operations of the Delaware Department of Corrections—as well as a sweeping indictment of the correctional “culture” of the Delaware facility.
In the years leading up to the incident, the Vaughn state prison was characterized by an “institutionalized culture of negativity…in which administration executives, correctional officers, support staff, and inmates view one another as adversaries,” the report said.
In a scathing assessment, the report linked inmate unrest to “adverse working conditions for correctional officers…inconsistently implemented rules and regulations, an inmate grievance procedure deemed unfair, a distrusted medical/mental health system, and a real lack of morale permeating the line officers.”
But the report also made clear that changes in specific policies, such as higher pay and better training for correctional workers and greater access to educational programs for inmates, must be accompanied by a focus on transforming the prison environment.
It urged adopting “procedural justice as the guiding principle” in the interactions between corrections administrators and staff, and between correctional staff and inmates.
“Correctional officers, much like law enforcement officers, have to strike a delicate balance between the enforcement of rules and their guardianship over inmates in order to ensure all around safe operations,” the report said.
“(But) it is important they ensure inmates are protected from undue harm and are being treated fairly and equitably.”
The authors of the report cited a warning by the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that if new rules and policies conflicted with the “existing culture” of law enforcement organizations, “behavior will not change.”
“This lesson is directly applicable to correctional organizations,” the report said.
A full copy of the report is available here.
This summary was prepared by TCR executive editor Stephen Handelman. Readers’ comments are welcome.