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When the Jailed Become the Jailers: Maximum Security Prison in Turmoil After Prisoners Take Officers Hostage



At the James T. Vaughn Correctional Facility (JTVCC) in Smyra, Delaware, as reported by Delaware Online, inmates have taken over the maximum security prison and are thought to be holding several officers hostage. All Delaware prisons are now on lock down due to the events which are still unfolding.

The prisoners in this facility have “taken over the building” reported Rep. William Carson, a member of the House Corrections Committee.

Helicopters, fire-engines and police vehicles keep flooding into the prison. Updates can be seen here.

Delaware Prison

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Details are still scarce as to why the inmates have been incited to such action, and the Department of Corrections is currently releasing little information about the event; however, there is a little-known phenomenon documented in what is now called the Stanford Prison Experiment which may lend insight into the unfolding events.

In 1971, several dozen college students were rounded up and ‘booked’ on charges of armed robbery and burglary. They weren’t really criminals, though, but willing participants in a Stanford University study. They were taken to Stanford County Prison—also known as the Stanford University psychology department, where they were subjected to psychological abuse by the ‘prison wardens.’ All inmates in the study were carefully checked for family history, criminal backgrounds, and psychological dysfunction. Before being admitted they were all deemed “normal.”

At first the imprisoned took the abuse of their captors and were submissive, saying little in protest. The abuse was so extreme though, that the experiment was terminated in six days though it was meant to continue for six weeks.  It is important to point out that the treatment these ‘fake’ prisoners received is similar to what many of the incarcerated endure in an average prison, not even a high-security prison. (Including being strip-searched, de-loused, and being forced to wear dehumanizing prison dress which included chains around the ankles.)

What ensued is no more than psychological chaos, and showed that with very little incentive, many of us can become tyrants, or easy targets, based on the emotional and societal structures which support each of these roles.

Though the prison guards had been explicitly instructed not to use physical force prior to the study, they all became increasingly aggressive and violent, causing an equal response in the prisoners.

What the Stanford Prison Experiment detailed was that we all play roles in our lives. We can be domineering and aggressive or peace loving just as easily – with very little motivation in either direction.

Police Violence In and Out of Prisons

As police violence grows outside prison walls, you can imagine how prison wardens and guards might tend to behave inside institutions that regularly turn to violence, psychological humiliation, and de-humanization to keep people in check.


Every seven seconds someone is killed by a law enforcement official in this country. Though some of these deaths may have been “justified” by criminal actions, many of these deaths are unnecessary and carried out on innocent individuals.

When we consider the group-think and herd mentality that causes Lord of the Flies type action, might it be better to utilize more peaceful methods for helping criminals change their actions – including criminal behavior by those charged with lording over the incarcerated?

Better Solutions 

For example, one man, Adam Verdoux was incarcerated for carrying out six different robberies, but has now learned how to cope with his fears and mental pain by meditating. He isn’t alone. Models based on incorporating meditation and yoga are being used all over the world to help lower recidivism rates. One prison in India where Gandhi was once jailed offers early release for prisoners who complete a yoga training program because it has been found to be so successful in rehabilitating prisoners.

Prison Yoga copy

Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world with fewer than 4,000 people behind bars in a country with a population of 5 million. The country relies on a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people. This system focuses on rehabilitating prisoners.  

Other prison systems are teaching prisoners important life skills that also happen to lower stress and help them deal with their anger. Insight Garden Program, which has been helping inmates at San Quentin rehabilitate and get training in flower gardening since 2003 and models which are similar have been helping inmates steer clear of a life of crime once they are no longer in prison.

Prison Garden copy

When the jailed become the jailers, it is time to look more closely at the way we treat each other as a whole. The prison industry cannot continue its deleterious treatment of the incarcerated and the over-jailing of innocent people.  As long as we jail people for profit, instead of trying to rehabilitate those who commit real crimes, instances like the Delaware prison hostage situation will likely only grow more frequent.  The uprising is happening in every aspect of our society.

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