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After Uprising, Delaware Prison Sends Hundreds Of Prisoners Away

Family members are frantic after 330 prisoners are transferred to Pennsylvania.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Thinkstock Images/Getty Images

“I lost my mom in September. I lost my sister in October. My son is under y’all’s care. He has not had the chance to grieve with his family,” Sharon told Delaware prison officials during an ACLU town hall in November. Her chronic illness and a surgery meant that she hadn’t been able to visit her son in months. Now, her son is one of 330 Delaware prisoners who has been transferred to a prison in Pennsylvania, hours away from their loved ones.

“I want my son back home. This is putting more strain on me,” she continued. “Since he’s been there I haven’t heard from him but just one letter. I’m used to talking to him every day. … I’m begging you, bring my child back!”

Until November, her son was incarcerated at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. One day in February 2017, prisoners took over a section of the prison and held hostages; one hostage, a corrections officer, was killed. A state report blamed the uprising on staffing shortages, long work hours for corrections officers, and a lack of trust between guards and prisoners. Prisoners have said they protested because of the abysmal medical care, abuse at the hands of guards, and poor conditions. Sixteen people were later charged with the corrections officer’s murder.

In the weeks and months following the riot, prisoners have said they were abused and tortured. Now, citing the shortage of corrections officers, the Delaware Department of Correction has signed an agreement to transfer hundreds of its prisoners to Pennsylvania state prisons over the next two years. The $30 million contract gives the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections authority over at least 330 prisoners, who were first moved in November to SCI Camp Hill for processing. They were subsequently sent to other prisons throughout Pennsylvania (spokespeople for the Pennsylvania DOC and Delaware DOC declined to say which prisons in particular).

Family members of people who were transferred have expressed that the move has put significant stress on them and has isolated their loved ones behind bars. Many said they can’t make long trips to Pennsylvania. But the challenges of the transfer aren’t limited to the distance.

“It’s not just transportation, it’s hurdles and getting back on the visitation list. It’s hurdles on even getting phone calls for these guys at this point, for some reason,” Erica Marshall, manager of the Campaign for Smart Justice for the ACLU of Delaware, told The Appeal by phone.

“It’s almost like a partial blackout that they’re in, in a place where they don’t even know any of the other inmates that they’re with. So it’s extremely isolating.”

It’s almost like a partial blackout that they’re in, in a place where they don’t even know any of the other inmates that they’re with.

Erica Marshall manager of the Campaign for Smart Justice for the ACLU of Delaware

At the ACLU hearing in November, family members were infuriated by the lack of notice and transparency around the transfer agreement.

“It was, right from the outset, rolled out with zero transparency, zero involvement from the community, [and] zero involvement from any of the inmates who would actually be transferred,” Marshall said. “DOC transfers individual inmates out for various reasons, safety reasons but for them to do this large scale, mass transfer basically under the cover of the night immediately triggered people in the community.”

The ACLU of Delaware has received complaints from transferred prisoners and their families about inadequate medical care—like prisoners not receiving medications they were prescribed in Delaware—as well as issues with mail delivery and lack of phone access.

The situation is exacerbated by Pennsylvania’s recently changed mail policy. Starting about six months ago, letters, cards, and photographs sent to people incarcerated in the state are first sent to a company in Florida that scans them and delivers the scanned documents to the recipient. Prisoners have complained that the policy causes significant delays in mail.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections responded, “Inmates transferred from Delaware will be provided with high-quality medical services. As with Vermont, Delaware DOC will be provided with access to all information regarding the care and housing of its inmates.”

In 2017, Vermont made a similar agreement with the Pennsylvania DOC and transferred over 200 Vermont prisoners to SCI Camp Hill. Three Vermont prisoners housed at SCI Camp Hill died—two while in Pennsylvania and one person within weeks of being transferred back to Vermont. A year later, the Vermont DOC moved all of its prisoners from SCI Camp Hill to a private prison in Mississippi.

When asked for comment, the Delaware DOC referred to its list of frequently asked questions, which states: “Delaware DOC is temporarily reducing the prison population in order to relieve stress placed on officers and inmates caused by understaffing. The transfers improve work life balance for staff, increase opportunities for education, programming and treatment for inmates, and provide a more secure correctional environment.”

Marshall stresses that there are other options. In Delaware, pretrial detainees and people convicted of crimes are housed in the same prison; advocates have pointed out that reforming bail or releasing a few hundred detainees facing trial could ease overcrowding. Marshall also pointed out that a Delaware statute allows the state to conduct sentence modifications if there’s a prison overcrowding issue. The state has about 300 people over the age of 61 who can be considered for sentence modification, Marshall told The Appeal. (Research shows that most people eventually age out of crime.)

The farther that you are from your family, the less they visit you.

Wanda Bertram Prison Policy Initiative

“There really was so much potential here to reduce our prison population in a smart and safe manner rather than just pumping the problem down the road, to the tune of, a very expensive Band-Aid essentially,” Marshall said.

Visiting loved ones in jail or prison is already difficult. A 2015 study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the majority of people incarcerated in state prisons are locked up over 100 miles from family and friends.

“You look at how far people are locked up from home and how many visits that they get, and the farther that you are from your family, the less they visit you,” Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative told The Appeal. “It’s not surprising why that would be. Visiting is expensive. The farther away you have to go, it takes a lot of time.”

Maintaining these connections while incarcerated are important for the same reasons people outside prison need to maintain those connections.

“Inmates should be able to see their children, parents, family, and friends because they are humans, just like all of us, and should be treated humanely,” Marshall explained.

“It’s a basic human need to see your loved ones, for the people in prison and for the family members at home who have not committed any crime,” she said, “and this transfer just further separates these families unnecessarily.”

Studies have shown that people behind bars who receive visits are more likely to re-enter society successfully when they are released and less likely to land back in prison. An Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction study found that receiving visits is linked to fewer rule violations.

“In our research, we found that less than a third of people that are in state prisons receive a visit from a loved one every month,” Bertram said. “The state of affairs here is already not good. In shipping people to Pennsylvania, Delaware is making an already bad situation even worse.”

According to Marshall, word of the transfers has even caused anxiety among prisoners who are still in Vaughn.

“From what we’re hearing from people with loved ones in Vaughn, they’re just full of this great sense of fear that, ‘OK today it wasn’t me, but tomorrow, maybe it will be,” Marshall said.