State officials on Friday maintained their silence regarding a criminal investigation into the deadly prison takeover Feb. 1 at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, as the probe entered its sixth week and a handful of prisoners, in federal court filings, continued to allege abuses both at the conclusion of the nearly 19-hour siege and in its aftermath.
During a Feb. 2 press conference, officials said that all of the approximately 120 inmates being held in the Smyrna prison’s Building C at the time of the takeover were considered suspects in the ordeal, which resulted in the death of Lt. Steven Floyd, a veteran corrections officer.
The inmates have been moved to other housing units at JTVCC, and Building C has remained closed, as the Delaware Department of Justice assists Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Correction, who are leading the investigation.
But little else is known about the scope of the probe or a timeline for its resolution. Representatives from the DOJ and DOC on Friday did not provide new details, and a DSP spokesman repeatedly declined to comment on how many prisoners were still considered suspects. The investigation, he said, was “active and ongoing.”
Meanwhile, at least six inmates claiming to be in the building during the takeover have filed pro se lawsuits against state officials in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. The prisoner’s allegations could not be independently verified, but they raise similar accusations of indiscriminate beatings after police and DOC personnel retook the building and of a lack of medical and other services in the weeks since.
According to the accounts, cooperative prisoners were beaten while restrained—either with handcuffs or zip ties—in the early hours of Feb. 2.
Asked to respond to those allegations, Sgt. Richard D. Bratz, public communications officer for the DSP, said the “whole incident will be investigated.”
“Any and all [allegations] will be investigated to the fullest,” he said.
According to the complaints, some inmates suffered broken bones at the hands of officers, and subsequent sick calls have gone unheeded. The prisoners also allege that the DOC suspended mental health treatment for Building C prisoners until the investigation is complete. Inmates have been confined mostly to their cells, and given little time to exercise outside, they said.
The allegations came as the DOC is facing a significant staffing shortage. Jayme Gravell, a DOC spokeswoman, said that 36 officers had either filed for retirement or resigned since Feb. 1.
However, not all of those were directly related to the takeover, she said, citing a new policy that allows corrections officers to retire after 25 years, instead of 30. Also, many officers moved on to other positions in law enforcement and had started arduous application processes well before the siege.
Still, DOC staff is currently operating with 133 vacancies out of 1,802 positions statewide. The DOC does not release staffing levels for individual prisons out of concern for officers’ safety.
Gravell said the shortage has strained resources and caused prison officials to adjust the way inmates are transported for sick calls, but staff has mostly worked through a backlog from the first few days after the siege.
Sick call slips were being collected and prioritized daily, and mental health appointments were being carried out regularly, she said.
Among the prisoners to file suit was Donald Parkell, the first inmate claiming to provide a detailed account of the takeover, in which four DOC employees were taken hostage.
In his complaint, Parkell disputed the state’s version of events in a Feb. 24 filing, accusing officials of misrepresenting facts in an effort to “sway public opinion away from prison reform and to blame the victims of the hostage crisis.”
Prisoners’ calls to the Delaware American Civil Liberties Union, Community Legal Aid Society Inc. and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been blocked, he said.
In his original complaint, Parkell said that “no more than” 10 inmates orchestrated the coup, brandishing razor blades and threatening a female counselor who had been taken hostage. The assailants, he said, covered their faces so that they wouldn’t be identified.
Parkell, who successfully challenged JTVCC’s blanket policy for cavity searches last year, is the most experienced of the five plaintiffs in litigating DOC actions and policies. But Parkell’s case hit a roadblock last week after Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark refused to consider his complaint until it was sent through the prison law library’s email system.
Parkell said multiple attempts to send documents to the law library through the prison’s in-house mail service were unsuccessful, and he asked Stark to issue an order directing the state defendants to respond. As of Friday, no such order had been entered.
The suit names David Pierce, interim warden Philip Parker, mental health clinician Peter Osinubi and unidentified corrections officers and medical staff as defendants.
Prisoners have blamed the siege on poor conditions and mistreatment from officers, while representative from the DOC and the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware have placed fault on past governors for failing to address overcrowding concerns, staffing shortages and low pay for officers.
Both the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice and the ACLU have called for a federal investigation into what led to the takeover, and the Delaware Center for Justice this month published recommendations for improving safety in Delaware’s correctional facilities.
Gov. John Carney has also announced an independent review of the causes behind the siege. Preliminary findings are expected to be submitted to lawmakers by July 1, but the review is not set to launch until after the criminal investigation is complete.