Current and former state officials created a “toxic” environment that led to abuses in the prison, both before—and in the eight months since—the deadly takeover of the Smyrna facility, lawyers for an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center’s C Building said in a new federal court filing on Oct. 5.
The amended complaint mirrors previous allegations by Donald Parkell, who claimed to have been taken hostage during the nearly 19-hour ordeal earlier this year.
But it also seeks to expand the scope of the proposed class action, adding as a defendant former Gov. Jack Markell, who is a target of a separate lawsuit by the family of Lt. Steven Floyd Sr., a veteran corrections officer who was killed during the siege.
In the filing, Parkell’s Seitz, Van Ogtrop & Green attorneys faulted Markell and Delaware Department of Correction officials for ”deliberately” understaffing the prison and failing to adequately train the correction officers who worked there. The resulting tension produced a “pervasive disdain” between staff and prisoners, and exposed security lapses that made the attack “predictable and inevitable.”
“As a result, rather than following standard operating procedures and industry standards, COs improvised, ignored certain security and safety procedures, and abused their authority,” James S. Green Sr. wrote in the complaint.
“Staff who were permitted to and encouraged to abuse prisoners did so with impunity, causing humiliation, pain and distress to the prisoners physically, mentally and emotionally.”
The abuses, Green said, have continued at JTVCC, where the approximately 125 prisoners in Building C at the time of the takeover are still being held in secure housing with limited access to mental health services and special diets.
The complaint also details beatings at the hands of police and prison staff, who retook control of the building in the early hours of Feb. 2. According to the filing, inmates were kicked while restrained and then rushed through medical triage units.
For two months, Green wrote, medical staff and vendors were directed not to treat the inmates, who were suffering from “PTSD-type” symptoms and dental problems. When mental health personnel were allowed access to the inmates, interactions were brief and conducted loudly, just feet from correction officers.
“This practice chilled the inmates’ desire to seek help due to the requirement of voicing their private medical information to two COs and the entire housing unit, full of prisoners,” Green said. “No one was able to discuss C Building-related issues due to the other inmates listening to discover and expose anyone ‘snitching,’ which would jeopardize their safety.”
Prisoners have also been subjected to retaliation from teams of officers formed to “terrorize the incarcerated,” including beatings, shakedowns and being forced to strip in from of female officers, the complaint said.
The Delaware Department of Justice, which is representing the state defendants, declined to comment on the Oct. 5 filing. A DOC spokeswoman also declined comment, citing a policy of not publicly discussing pending litigation.
Parkell first raised the allegations Feb. 14 in a handwritten complaint that provided the first detailed account of the takeover from a prisoner who claimed to have witnessed the ordeal firsthand.
According to Parkell, “no more than” inmates coordinated the Feb. 1 siege, taking four DOC employees hostage, barricading the facility and setting fires throughout the building. The masterminds of the takeover, he said, were planning to release the remaining inmates and surrender on Feb. 2, 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 Patricia May, a counselor who he said was taken hostage, “albeit without violence.”
Throughout the siege, Parkell said he and fellow inmates Michael Carello and Tyreek Downing stayed with the hostage in her cell, 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. Parkell, Carello and Downing were not injured in the retaking, but Parkell said ”orders had been given to punish all of the inmates physically.”
JTVCC Deputy Warden Phil Parker, then serving as acting warden, responded to the suit in March, saying through an attorney that it was a “broad and vague” attempt to usurp the state’s ongoing investigations into the ordeal.
The case was later held in abeyance until Parkell could be provided counsel through the Federal Civil Panel. James Green, Kevin A. Guerke and Jared Thomas Green signed on to represent him in May, and the stay was lifted.
The new complaint keeps many of Parkell’s original allegations, but it also contains parallels to a wrongful death suit filed by Floyd’s widow in April.
In that case, Saundra Floyd accused Markell and former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner of hiding severe understaffing at the prison from lawmakers and the public and failing to address underlying security concerns that allowed the takeover to occur.
Under the Markell administration, 40 percent of all prison staffing was covered with overtime shifts and 90 DOC positions were ordered to be left vacant at any given time, Floyd family attorneys said. Markell and Minner have moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that they were under no constitutional obligation to ensure a safe work environment at the prison.
Parkell’s suit does not name Minner as a defendant but repeats similar allegations against Markell. The complaint also names JTVCC Warden Dana Metzger, former Warden David Pierce, Department of Safety & Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe and DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps as defendants in the case.
An independent report, spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III of the District of Delaware, has also identified staffing issues and poor communication as contributing to tensions at the prison.
The DOJ is heading a criminal investigation into the matter and plans to present indictments to a New Castle County grand jury by early November.
Parkell’s suit, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, is captioned Parkell v. Pierce.
Tom McParland of Delaware Law Weekly can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TMcParlandTLI.