Prison cell. Credit: BigStock. ()
A complaint filed Tuesday in Delaware federal court has offered the first detailed account from an inmate who claimed to be in James T. Vaughn Correctional Center’s Building C during a nearly 19-hour prison takeover that left a corrections officer dead earlier this month.
The prisoner, Donald Parkell, described a chaotic ordeal, in which “no more than” 10 inmates coordinated the Feb. 1 siege, taking four Department of Correction employees hostage, barricading the facility and setting fires throughout the building.
According to the 13-page handwritten document, three “officers”—including Sgt. Steven Floyd, a veteran guard who was killed during the attack—were “savagely beaten and restrained,” their faces covered to prevent them from identifying the captors. A fourth employee, a female counselor, was held in a cell, where Parkell said he and two others protected her from fellow inmates.
Parkell’s account could not be independently verified, and representatives from the DOC and the Delaware Department of Justice declined to comment Wednesday on the accuracy of his claims.
However, parts of Parkell’s narrative appeared consistent with public statements from state officials, who said inmates had filled metal footlockers with water to prevent police and DOC staff from retaking the building.
At a press conference Feb. 2, Robert Coupe, secretary of Delaware’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said authorities breached the building with a backhoe just before dawn. He also described inmates armed with “sharp instruments,” and even said that some prisoners had “shielded” the counselor throughout the day.
All of those elements appear in Parkell’s complaint, but the document also purports to describe other details of the siege and its aftermath that have not been made public.
For instance, he said, fires were lit in various places, flooding the building with smoke and flames. At one point, a fire triggered the building’s fire alarm, setting off sprinklers and setting off an “incessant series of beeping and blaring,” Parkell said.
Groups of inmates “banded together” to cook food, which Parkell said they shared among themselves. The “attackers,” who instigated the riot, ate alone, he said.
According to Parkell, the masterminds of the takeover were planning to release the remaining inmates and surrender, when shortly after 5 a.m. Delaware State Police and DOC staff stormed the building “using a backhoe, concussion grenades and overwhelming numbers.”
Parkell also described at length his efforts to protect the counselor, who he said was taken hostage, “albeit without violence.”
Throughout the siege, Parkell said he and fellow inmates—identified as Michael Carello and Tyreek Downing—stayed with the hostage in her cell, periodically removing her blindfold and rebuffing other prisoners who threatened them harm. He also said they were able to recover the counselor’s personal property and return pictures, identification cards and credit cards.
As authorities retook the building, the counselor told officers that the three had protected her, prompting a promise from one to keep them safe in return, Parkell said.
“Don’t hurt these three. Make sure everyone knows not to hurt them,” the officer urged, according to Parkell.
Other inmates were beaten, he said: “The officers injured nearly every man, hostages included. The officers kicked, stomped and used knees on the inmates after they had all peacefully complied. No inmates resisted.”
Parkell said that inmates were triaged in the infirmary and quickly moved to other buildings at the prison, where they continued to be held on Tuesday.
Since the assault on Building C, Parkell said the inmates have been refused access to clothes, shoes and linens, and religious diets were curtailed for about a week. Meanwhile, he said, mental health concerns and requests for sick calls have been ignored, and meal service has been rolled back to below normal levels.
In the complaint, Parkell alleges due process violations, as well as cruel and unusual punishment. The case has been assigned to Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark of the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.
The Delaware State Police are heading a criminal investigation into the prison takeover, with the assistance of the DOJ. Details of that probe have not been made public, but officials said that all 120 inmates in Building C are still being considered suspects.
The DOC is conducting its own internal investigation into the ordeal, and Gov. John Carney has announced the details of an independent review, to be conducted after the criminal investigation is finished.
A spokesman for the DOJ said that the Attorney General’s Office was aware of the filing, but declined to comment any further.
Jayme Gravell, a DOC spokeswoman, said she had not personally reviewed the complaint and was unsure if others in the department had seen it. The DOC declined to comment on its substance, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
Gravell said that Parkell is a prisoner at JTVCC, but she could not confirm that he was in Building C at the time of the takeover.
Parkell has filed at least six federal prisoner’s rights lawsuits over conditions of inmate treatment at JTVCC. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court upheld his challenge to the prison’s blanket policy of conducting visual cavity searches three times a day, ruling that the intrusive examinations violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Parkell has been incarcerated at JTVCC since January 2014, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for second-degree burglary. He is set to be released in 2020.