DOVER, Del. – An attorney filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of scores of inmates at Delaware's maximum-security prison, alleging they were subject to inhumane conditions and physical and verbal abuse both before and after a riot last year in which a guard was killed.
The 80-page complaint filed Wednesday names Democratic Gov. John Carney, Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, and dozens of current and former DOC administrators and employees as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges that state officials have known of, but largely ignored, abusive conditions at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center for years.
"Inmates and others repeatedly complained about abuse, the increasingly unavailable health care, and the increasing scarcity of education, rehabilitation, and recreation options," said the lawsuit filed by Dover attorney Stephen Hampton.
The lawsuit said complaints reached the highest levels of the Department of Correction but "supervisors did not discipline the abusing officers" and "made no attempt to provide rehabilitation or education opportunities to inmates who wanted them." It says health care became so bad that many inmates are receiving no care for serious medical issues.
The complaint also alleges that Correction officials, perhaps with the cooperation of the prison's medical contractor, deliberately covered up widespread retaliatory beatings and abuse of inmates after the February 2017 riot ended. Several inmates who were housed in the building seized by prisoners have previously complained of being severely beaten after the riot, then denied medical care for weeks, allowing their cuts and bruises to heal before they were seen by medical workers.
"You guys that are coming from C-Building will not see a nurse or doctor until y'all injuries heal up a little bit," a correctional officer told an inmate, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also refers to medical records for one inmate who was seen two weeks after the riot. The diagnosis code reads: "Unspecified occupant of heavy transport vehicle injured in non-collusion (sic) transport accident in traffic accident." A mental health worker's notes from a day earlier indicate that the same inmate had complained that he had been beaten by guards after the riot.
Two weeks after the riot, a department spokeswoman described allegations that inmates were subjected to physical abuse as "a fallacy."
Officials with the DOC, its medical and mental health contractor, Connections Community Support Programs, and Carney's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"As a general matter, we don't comment on active litigation," said Carney spokesman Jon Starkey.
The lawsuit comes amid an ongoing trial of three of 16 inmates who were charged with murder, kidnapping and other crimes in connection with the riot, in which three prison staffers also were taken hostage. Two other inmates, including one who pleaded guilty to riot and is testifying for prosecutors, avoided murder charges in the death of a guard, Sgt. Steven Floyd.
Two of the 16 inmates charged with murder, Lawrence Michaels and Luis Sierra, were also named as plaintiffs in the civil suit, which Hampton described as an oversight. Hampton said that, because of a potential conflict of interest, they would be removed as plaintiffs, at least until their criminal charges are resolved.
The lawsuit specifically alleges cruel and unusual punishment, conspiracy, illegal cross-gender strip searches and body-cavity searches, infliction of emotional distress, and failure to properly train, monitor and discipline DOC staffers. It is seeking an injunction to prevent DOC officials from further abusing inmates, the awarding of damages, and the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure that inmates are no longer abused and that their abusers are held accountable.
"Nobody in Delaware's going to fix it," Hampton said. "They've had 30 or 40 years."
An independent review ordered by Carney after the riot found that the dismissal by DOC officials of warnings about trouble brewing was indicative of an overcrowded, understaffed facility plagued by mismanagement, poor communication, a culture of negativity, and adversarial relationships among prison staff, administrators and inmates.