Abuse Thrives on Silence: The #VaughnRebellion in Context


image: "#resist," by Kim Wilson. via instagram @topazandopal

by Kim Wilson

[2/5/2017 – image: “#resist,” by Kim Wilson, via instagram @topazandopal]

On February 1, 2017 incarcerated individuals at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware took a stand against dehumanizing and abusive conditions at the prison. Building C became the site of national media focus with images of heavily armed response teams surrounding the entrance and awaiting orders. It looked like a scene from a movie, but this wasn’t a movie.

This was life.

News reports offered little insight on what was unfolding at this Level Five prison (i.e maximum-security) less than 20 miles from Wilmington, Delaware. Written reports pathetically relied on the facility’s Wikipedia page, and then only for the purposes of citing a few statistics and highlighting an incident from more than a decade ago. The hot takes would soon follow.

I found out about the situation while scrolling through my Twitter feed. The Associated Press tweeted that prison guards had been taken hostage and that all state prisons were on lockdown.

My heart sank.

Having someone you love in prison is hard enough, but having two people you love in prison is devastating. It requires that you shield yourself in ways that it’s hard for other people to imagine because you are always expecting bad news.

My two sons are at Vaughn.

At 1:06 p.m. DelawareOnline released an audio in which the caller said that the men at Vaughn acted because they wanted better treatment, access to education, and transparency in the system.[1] The caller was unable to give his name because he was one of the hostages. However, this did not stop the reporter from asking him multiple times for his name. The caller sounded scared (he described having something on his head, and he told the reporter that he was just doing what he was told).  When the call was over I knew that was likely the last time that the public would hear from those inside.

A prison lockdown creates an information black hole. Only bits and pieces of information are allowed to trickle out during moments of crisis, and these are usually staged events with officials standing around delivering statements and not taking questions. The control of information is designed to limit what the public knows, but it’s also designed to isolate those inside from those outside. The control of information also serves law enforcement interests by making it easier to track people that post things online that can’t or wouldn’t be known if one does not have access.

Building C houses 150 men on the site of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. Anyone that has been to Vaughn knows that each building is isolated from the others with a series of razor wire topped fences, electronic gates, and locked doors.  There’s no mistaking that you’ve entered a maximum-security facility when you enter Vaughn. Even the reception room is inaccessible to visitors until a guard buzzes you in and out.

By 1:42 p.m., I had already called the prison to request information on my sons. I was told that the prison was not releasing any information at that time and then I was instructed to call back later that night around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

What took place at Vaughn is connected to the broader political situation in the United States. The caller said as much. While we currently don’t know the identities of those involved in what has become known as the #VaughnRebellion, what we do know is that these men were willing to risk their lives to illuminate the abuses inside Vaughn, and they did so by deliberately pointing to the president and his policies. This is an important moment that is being overlooked because national politics are rightfully the concern of the moment.

It is also the case that the focus of mass incarceration reform movements often highlight well-known facilities like Rikers, Pelican Bay, Angola, and Attica. Overlooked are less notorious prisons where abuses tend to thrive unchecked because these facilities are not on people’s radar.

The #VaughnRebellion is already being described as a single event that ended on February 2, 2017 when law enforcement stormed Building C in the early hours of the morning. However, if we take what the men in Vaughn said seriously, then we should look at the #VaughnRebellion in the context of other movements for social justice that have mobilized in recent years and that show no signs of waning.

The #VaughnRebellion cannot be disconnected from the broader struggle against extra-judicial police killings of Black people in the United States. Freedom from abuse from corrections officers and other prison staff is part of the same struggle to end police violence.

The #VaughnRebellion read thusly, is also a direct response to unjust federal policies that are likely to influence the conditions within state prisons in Delaware and around the country.  At a time when the federal government has targeted vulnerable groups of people in this country, the #VaughnRebellion should be seen as a signal that solidarity includes solidarity with incarcerated people.

The men of Vaughn are demanding better treatment, education, correct status sheets, and effective rehabilitation. They are telling society that they will not be disappeared and forgotten. They are saying, unequivocally, that they matter, and that they will not be denied their humanity even if it risks them more time or their lives.

In the coming weeks and months we are likely to hear from self-appointed “experts”, task-forces, committees, and other groups that will be charged with analyzing what led up to the #VaughnRebellion so that it doesn’t happen again. The concerns of the incarcerated people at Vaughn will not be centered in those investigations. The central focus will be on “safety” (as defined by the institution).

In my experience, as both a scholar of mass incarceration and a mother of two incarcerated men at Vaughn, Delaware officials are masters of illusion. They will make it appear as if they have taken the demands for better treatment, etc., seriously, while they double-down and intensify their use of harsh punishment, and increase surveillance of anyone they perceive to be a threat to the smooth operation of the prison. This includes not just the incarcerated people at Vaughn, but also the people on the outside who they see as rabble-rousers. Much of the public will likely have lost interest in what happens at Vaughn because that’s how these things go. But for those of us with loved ones on the inside we need to stay vigilant, engaged, focused, and determined in our efforts.

Abuse thrives on silence. I don’t believe that we can afford to ignore the #VaughnRebellion as some outlier event in an otherwise model prison (though prison officials and politicians will try to push this line—hard).  We don’t know who was involved in the #VaughnRebellion, but I stand in support with them and with everyone else at Vaughn that is subject to abuse. There are many inside that are legitimately afraid to speak up. There are also those outside who feel as though they can’t speak up because they worry that they will be banned from the prison. This is a legitimate concern, and I worry that I’ll be banned from seeing my sons for writing about the #VaughnRebellion.

This is how power and control work. This is how abuse works.

In the struggle for justice, I can’t allow fear to stop me.


About the author: Kim Wilson holds a Ph.D. in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware. Her research and activism focus on the impact of mass incarceration on communities. You can follow her on twitter @phillyprof03.

[1] Like most jurisdictions in the U.S., Delaware DOC assigns individuals to sex-segregated facilities on their basis of their birth-assigned sex. This is currently under review, based on an ACLU lawsuit and DOJ ruling from March of 2016.

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