When the State Investigates Itself, No One Is Accountable: Before and After the Vaughn Prison Rebellion

The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware.The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. (Photo: trconrad2001 / Wikipedia)

I have two sons serving life sentences at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. From everything I know about Vaughn and other Delaware prisons, it is clear to me that the rebellion that took place there this February arose in response to a system that refuses to recognize the humanity of incarcerated people, and the investigations now being contemplated seem destined to perpetuate that refusal.

On February 1, 2017, the Delaware News Journal received a call from someone inside of Vaughn. The caller claimed to be a hostage in Building C and that they were being forced to relay a list of demands to the paper. In the recording of that call, we get a glimpse into the problems plaguing the facility and some insight into why the rebellion arose in the first place. What we hear is that incarcerated people at Vaughn are asking for better treatment, including increased educational opportunities, a review of the handling of their legal paperwork and status sheets. This demand is more important and has a larger significance than is often realized. It is a demand for recognition, not only of the humanity of the people incarcerated at the facility, but also of the fact that they have long endured a situation in which they are systematically mistreated and are left with no recourse beyond complaints addressed to the same people whom they accuse of mistreating them.

The caller also made it clear that the reason for the rebellion was linked to the election of Donald Trump as president:

We’re trying to explain the reasons for doing what we’re doing. Donald Trump. Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know the institution is going to change for the worse. We got demands that you need to pay attention to, which you need to listen to and you need to let them [be] known. We want education first and foremost. We want a rehabilitation program that works for everybody. We want the money to be allocated so we can know exactly what is going on in the prison, the budget.

The next day, on February 2, 2017 response teams stormed Building C and brought an end to the rebellion.

In the weeks following the uprising, 17 corrections officers at Vaughn quit their jobs. We have also learned that some incarcerated people in Vaughn had called for the resignation of 17 specific corrections officers. It remains unknown if these were the same 17 officers who have resigned.

Most recently, on the morning of February 21, it was announced that Warden David Pierce has been placed on administrative leave with pay, pending the outcome of state investigations into the rebellion.

Transparency and oversight were already lacking at Vaughn in the years leading up to February 1, and to date there has been no official word about the physical condition or whereabouts of any of the 120 incarcerated people housed in Building C.

But these conditions are both an extension and an exacerbation of the silence and neglect that has made Vaughn a site of abuse for years. We have little reason to think that behind closed doors in the aftermath of this event, the 120 incarcerated people who were inside Building C on February 1 have not been the victims of retaliatory abuse.

Finally, what is clear is that, absent fundamental changes in how Vaughn operates, everything we know about what happened at Vaughn, what is happening now, and what will happen in the coming days, will depend entirely on whose voices we allow to be heard, and whose voices count.

Who Gets to Be a Victim

Incarcerated people don’t get to be victims, or so the generally accepted logic goes. Yet we know that jails and prisons across the United States are full of victims.

There’s a tendency to ask victims of law enforcement violence to denounce violence against law enforcement officers. This move shifts attention away from legitimate complaints made by victims of abuse inflicted by law enforcement. This includes incarcerated people who also experience abuse at the hands of corrections officers and other staff, and for whom there exists little, if any, recourse. Internal prison complaint reporting systems are likely to be overseen by the very officers inflicting the abuse on an incarcerated person. This is not a system where fairness prevails or where truth-seeking matters. “Fairness” in prison is often defined in the most narrow terms possible and it means what is fair to the officer, and “truth-seeking” in a system where law enforcement nearly automatically get the benefit of the doubt is an exercise in futility. Yet this is the situation at Vaughn, which is being overlooked because it is unpopular and politically disadvantageous to side with incarcerated people.

What is happening at Vaughn is a cover-up. It is a cover-up in the sense that the system is investigating itself, and that never leads to positive outcomes for incarcerated people. Since February 1, the focus of officials has been on addressing the safety and security concerns of corrections officers and staff as well as on identifying a cause for what led up to the rebellion. The safety and well-being of incarcerated people at Vaughn does not appear to be a priority for state officials. This is not an oversight, but it speaks to why incarcerated people at Vaughn continue to feel a deep sense of frustration because their concerns are seldom given any respect.

In an effort to give the investigation a sheen of legitimacy, two former judges have been assigned to lead the effort. By assigning this “independent” panel of judges to oversee the investigation, Delaware officials are ensuring that they are making this problem disappear. We know from what the governor has said that safety and security are his main concerns, and we can expect that any report about what led up to the situation on February 1 will address little else except these two issues.

Before and After

We know what led up to the rebellion. While the details surrounding the exact moments or plans for a rebellion may never be known, what is clear is that what happened on that day was the result of decades of unchecked abuse within the facility and a refusal by officials at Vaughn and politicians in Delaware to take seriously complaints by incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, their families and friends, and advocates who have been saying for years that they want the abuse to stop.

What has been written about Vaughn has failed to adequately account for or describe the conditions of incarcerated people, and this writing has also failed to put a human face to the suffering that is taking place inside of prisons.

Attempts to give a “balanced” perspective have done little except to amplify the voices of people and groups in power while simultaneously portraying incarcerated people in the most flattened, stereotypical way possible. These “balanced” takes reinforce the public’s perception of incarcerated people as deserving of harsh punishment by emphasizing the voices of those in power who see any kind of negotiation with incarcerated people as a zero sum game. As long as prison officials and politicians treat incarcerated people with contempt and as long as they see them as less than human they will remain mystified by any act of rebellion no matter how small or peaceful on the part of people in prison.

I am not naive enough to believe that any investigation is going to lead to sweeping changes in policies or practices at Vaughn or any other facility in Delaware without a legal fight. I, for one, know better.

The last three weeks have reinforced for me what I have long known to be an unspoken belief among many people in our society — that the lives of incarcerated people don’t matter. They may matter to some people, but they largely don’t matter to many more, including to the very people that the public entrusts with overseeing their confinement.

State Violence

Put differently, what is at stake here is how state violence is automatically thought of as legitimate while violence in the hands of the oppressed is treated as illegitimate. In prison, and in our broader society, it is understood and largely agreed upon that violence in the hands of the state (law enforcement officers represent the state), and some people is acceptable. However, everyone else is expected to march quietly and peacefully in the face of abuse and death.

Prisons are not a space where productive conversations between officers and incarcerated people take place around issues of oppression and abuse. The power dynamics between these groups makes it clear that incarcerated people are to obey orders no matter how dehumanizing or arbitrary those orders might be, and that questioning authority is not simply discouraged, it is not permitted.

To question a staff member is to paint a target on one’s back. It makes one the focus of intense retaliation through a variety of mechanisms: not being allowed to make a phone call, being denied access to medical care, being arbitrarily fired from a prison job, being physically attacked by staff. Within this system, society tells incarcerated people that they deserve whatever happens to them inside of prison. There’s no consideration given to the fact that removal (for some people, permanently) from their families and communities is punishment, and that confinement in prison is punishment, and that this is a severe form of punishment that is damaging to everyone involved. No, clearly this is not a consideration. This arrangement leaves the door wide open to unchecked abuse, and no one seems to be ready to interrogate this in a serious way or to push back against facile ideas of incarcerated people as deserving of abuse as an unspoken part of their legal sentences. What we have is not simply abuse in prison, but also the abuse of prison itself

People in prison have few options in the face of sustained abuse against them and violence is one of those options when nothing else is available. This is not unexpected or unexplainable violence, but resistance to the lack of accountability and transparency at Vaughn and other prisons. There are no summits, roundtable discussions, fair hearings, or healing circles when an incarcerated person is being abused. There’s only what the state says, and since incarcerated people are considered property of the state (quite literally), the state can do what it wants without being held accountable.

Just Desserts

Incarcerated people don’t make for sympathetic public relations, except in cases of wrongful convictions. While public attitudes toward mass incarceration have shifted slightly in recent years, this hasn’t changed public attitudes much toward incarcerated people, who are still viewed by many as disposable. There is a general attitude that people in prison deserve to be there and that whatever happens to them while incarcerated is just punishment for having broken the law. This thinking informs much of the way that policy is formulated, but it also informs the attitude and actions of how incarcerated people are treated in society.

As long as society continues to regard incarcerated people as throwaways, we will continue to see officials and much of the public appear to be baffled when incarcerated people contest dehumanizing treatment. When you’ve stripped people of everything, of their freedom, of their identity (in prison you’re a number), of their families, of their community, of their ability to make even minor decisions over their own person, and you pile on physical, mental, emotional abuse, you are planting the seeds for rebellion because you are not giving people choices that cohere with what it means to be human.

The incarcerated people at Vaughn have asked for better treatment. This is such a simple, but yet complex idea that deserves more attention than it has received. When I heard the recording of the young man saying that the men at Vaughn want better treatment, what I heard was the most basic plea to recognize the humanity of those incarcerated there, and in light of the urgency of that demand to be seen as fully human, I fail to see how politicians and prison officials can possibly deny this request.

Instead of scratching their heads over the hows and whys of what led up to the February 1 rebellion, it might be more productive for those officials to stop and listen to what the incarcerated people at Vaughn have said is the reason for it. They are screaming “treat me better,” and after all of what’s happened, officials are still not listening.

What is happening at Vaughn presents us with an opportunity to do better. The abusive conditions at Vaughn did not arise in a vacuum. These conditions are not products of incarcerated people’s making. A starting point for an adequate, just response would be to take seriously the demands of incarcerated people.