Attorneys from the Delaware Department of Justice on Thursday attacked a prisoner lawsuit stemming from the Feb. 1 takeover of James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, saying the “broad and undefined” allegations failed to link current and former state officials to supposed abuses at the prison in the wake of the deadly ordeal.
The state defendants, including former Gov. Jack Markell, moved to dismiss the proposed class action by Donald Parkell, a JTVCC inmate who provided the first detailed account of the takeover and its aftermath in a Feb. 14 handwritten complaint.
Parkell, who has since been assigned counsel in the case, has said that prisoners at the Smyrna facility were unconstitutionally denied access to medical treatment and religious diets and were subjected to beatings at the hands of prison staff in retaliation for the riot, which left veteran corrections officer Lt. Steven Floyd Sr. dead.
But Joseph C. Handlon, deputy attorney general with the DOJ, argued Thursday that the claims were too speculative to expose Markell and other top officials to personal liability for the alleged violations.
“For these alleged offenses, Parkell seeks to hold the highest levels of state officials responsible,” Handlon wrote in the 20-page filing. “While Parkell provides considerable detail as to the alleged deprivations, he provides strikingly little information connecting any of the named defendants to the alleged wrongdoing,”
Parkell’s amended complaint targets Markell and officials from the Delaware Department of Correction for deliberately understaffing the prison and failing to adequately train the correction officers who worked there. The resulting tension, Parkell said, produced a “pervasive disdain” between staff and prisoners, and exposed security lapses that made the attack “predictable and inevitable.”
In addition to Markell, the suit also names JTVCC Warden Dana Metzger, former Warden David Pierce, Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Robert Coupe and DOC Commissioner Perry Phelps as defendants.
All six state defendants claimed either qualified or legislative immunity, which protect officials from lawsuits challenging actions taken in their official government capacity.
Further, Handlon said, Parkell had failed to make specific allegations against the officials to show that they were personally involved in alleged constitutional or civil rights violations at the prison. In the case of Metzger, who was sued in his individual capacity, the current JTVCC warden was serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time of the takeover, and did not assume leadership at the prison until May, when restrictions at JTVCC has started to lighten, Handlon said.
“Remarkably, Parkell fails to allege the personal involvement of, or direction given by, any named defendants in a single one of the alleged constitutional violations: the rescue of the hostages, destruction of inmate property, delivery of medical or mental health care following the riot, or any other conditions of confinement over the last several months,” he said.
“Parkell’s conclusory allegations permeating the [complaint] referring to ‘defendants’ actions or failures is likewise entitled to no weight on a motion to dismiss.”
An attorney for Parkell was not immediately available to comment on the filing.
Parkell’s suit, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, is captioned Parkell v. Pierce.