Attorneys from the Delaware Department of Justice on Tuesday attacked the most recent round of allegations in a prisoner lawsuit stemming from the February 2017 takeover of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, saying that it was an “incredible leap” to accuse state officials of ordering constitutional violations in retaliation for the deadly incident last February.
Joseph C. Handlon, head of the DOJ’s Defensive Litigation Unit, said in a court filing that an attorney for JTVCC inmate Donald Parkell had cited no evidence to support his client’s claims earlier this month that top officials at the prison had ordered beatings following the 19-hour ordeal at the prison’s C Building last February.
“Plaintiff is entitled to reasonable inferences from a complaint, not speculative ones,” Handlon wrote in a 10-page brief.
A spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Correction has denied the allegations “flat out,” but declined to comment further on the pending litigation.
The dispute has emerged as Parkell’s lawyer, James S. Green Sr., tries to survive a motion to dismiss the suit and force the case into discovery.
Parkell, a medium-security inmate at the Smyrna prison, has accused state officials of creating a “toxic” environment that led to abuses and said that inmates were unconstitutionally denied access to medical treatment and religious diets and were subjected to beatings in response to the riot, which left veteran corrections officer Lt. Steven Floyd Sr. dead.
On Feb. 6, Parkell alleged, for the first time, that DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps and the prison’s former Wardens David Pierce and Phillip Parker directed corrections officers to assault inmates after authorities retook the facility and later formed teams of guards to “terrorize and torture” the prisoners.
“Without discovery, except as reflected in the public record, plaintiff cannot know with certainty which defendant gave which order,” Green wrote.
Handlon conceded that while first responders “may have acted aggressively” when retaking the building, there was nothing to tie officials to the supposed abuses. And he criticized Parkell for not properly raising those kinds of factual allegations in his complaint.
“The court should reject the many inaccuracies and other speculation strewn throughout the answering brief. The adequacy of allegations as to the named defendants must be based upon what plaintiff has alleged in the [third amended complaint] and nothing else,” he said.
Green, a partner with Seitz, Van Ogtrop & Green, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Handlon also took aim Tuesday at Parkell’s claim that former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell should be held liable for spending decisions that allegedly drained the prison of resources and set the stage for last year’s attack.
According to Parkell, Markell deliberately understaffed the prison and failed to train correctional officers who worked there, resulting in a “pervasive disdain” between staff and prisoners that made the uprising “predictable and inevitable.”
But Handlon argued that Markell was protected by qualified immunity and that allegations of inadequate staffing were not relevant to the case.
A total of 18 inmates have been charged in relation to the incident, and 16 are facing murder charges in Floyd’s death.
Floyd’s family and DOC staff injured in the ordeal settled a separate case against the state for more than $7.5 million in December.
The current case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware is captioned Parkell v. Pierce.
It also names current JTVCC Warden Dana Metzger, Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe and unnamed prison staff as defendants.