Attorneys from the Delaware Department of Justice on Friday asked a federal judge to dismiss the remaining claims in a prisoner lawsuit accusing state officials of abuses in the wake of last year’s deadly uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.
The filing came in response to inmate Donald Parkell’s latest—and likely final—attempt to hold two JTVCC wardens and commissioners of the Delaware Department of Corrections responsible for the aftermath of the February 2017 incident, which left one corrections officer dead and two others injured.
U.S. District Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark of the District of Delaware in June rejected the bulk of Parkell’s claims, but allowed him to amend his complaint for a fourth and final time.
Parkell, who was housed in the prison’s C Building at the time of the inmate takeover, in July dropped his claims against former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Dana Metzger, who took over as warden of JTVCC last may. However, the revised complaint continued to allege that staff at the prison “were permitted to and encouraged to abuse prisoners” in retaliation for the riot.
Parkell also added new allegations that former Warden David Pierce and former DOC Commissioner Robert Coupe placed inmates and guards at risk by deliberately undermining a 2016 settlement requiring increased security, better mental health services at the prison and more out-of-cell time for prisoners placed in restrictive housing.
According to the complaint, the two officials created a “volatile mix” of mentally ill inmates and rival gang members in the recreation yard, which paved the way for a “mass movement” among prisoners.
“The actions and inactions of Coupe and Pierce demonstrate a conspiracy to cause the implementation of the CLASI order to fail, and to seriously jeopardize the safety and security of the staff and inmates in the process,” Parkell’s attorney James S. Green Sr. said, referencing the Community Legal Aid Society Inc. agreement.
On Friday, Joseph C. Handlon, head of the DOJ’s Defensive Litigation Unit, bashed the latest allegation as “astounding,” saying that Pierce and Coupe had acted reasonably in trying to comply with the CLASI order and challenged the connection Parkell drew between the two.
“The foreseeability of the riot in connection with the implementation of the CLASI order is especially questionable because the CLASI order did not pertain to C Building, where the riot occurred,” Handlon wrote in a six-page motion to dismiss.
Handlon also argued in the filing that Parkell had failed to state constitutional claims to overcome the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability for actions taken in their official capacity.
Parkell, a medium-security inmate at the prison, initially filed a handwritten complaint in the weeks following the takeover, accusing state officials of creating a “toxic” environment that led to abuses. Green, a partner with Seitz, Van Ogtrop & Green, later signed on to represent Parkell, after Stark deemed the allegations serious enough to warrant the appointment of counsel.
Later versions of the complaint accused Markell of deliberately understaffing the prison and failing to train correctional officers who worked there, resulting in a “pervasive disdain” between staff and prisoners that made the attack “predictable and inevitable.”
In June, Stark ruled that Markell, who left office in January 2017, was immune from the lawsuit and he rejected Parkell’s claims for failure to train and supervise prison staff. Stark also ruled that Parkell lacked standing to claim that officials had ordered beatings because Parkell had said in court documents that he was not injured himself.
The latest version of the complaint includes one count under federal law for failure to protect against Pierce, Coupe and Deputy Warden Philip Parker and a second count for cruel and unusual punishment against Pierce and Parker.
The case, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, is captioned Parkell v. Pierce.