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Lawsuit Claims Delaware Prisoners Are Still Being Beaten, Stripped And Tortured Months After Uprising

Meanwhile, the abysmal medical care that helped spark the riot persists.

The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in DelawareWikimedia Commons

In the early morning of Feb. 2, 2017, Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) officers and Delaware state troopers entered James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware, to regain control of Building C. For the past 19 hours, prisoners had taken control of the C-19 unit at Vaughn. A few prisoners barricaded the doors with water-filled lockers and took four correction workers and several other prisoners hostage. Ultimately, one correction officer, Steven Floyd, was killed.

During the uprising and hostage situation, anonymous prisoners called the News Journal and presented several demands that included rehabilitation, educational programs, and a say in where money is allocated in the prison’s budget. A joint study by the National Lawyers Guild Delaware-New Jersey chapter and ACLU of Delaware found that complaints sent to ACLU Delaware from Vaughn far exceeded complaints from other prisons and that complaints about medical care spiked the month before the riot occurred.

As CERT entered the building the next morning, prisoners allege in a lawsuit filed Oct. 31, it indiscriminately used pepper spray, shock riot shields and batons on incarcerated people. One unit, the lawsuit claims, was forced to sit outside facing a wall for three hours as guards shot pepper balls from paintball guns at them. Prisoners also described being stomped, kicked, spit on, and punched in the face and stomach. Some said they were ambushed by corrections officers in their cells.

“They took my glasses off my face and stomped on them, then sprayed pepper spray in my eyes, nose, and mouth,” one prisoner recalled in a statement included in the lawsuit.

“While I remained restrained on the floor they began to kick and stomp on me asking me if I killed Floyd. I told them ‘no’ but they kept beating me,” he continued. “I thought they were trying to force a false confession out of me.”

According to the lawsuit, filed by the law firm Grady and Hampton, over 100 prisoners incarcerated at Vaughn were beaten and berated in the days and months following the uprising. The class-action lawsuit accuses former and current Delaware Department of Correction commissioners, Governor John Carney and other prison officials of cruel and unusual punishment of hundreds of people in their custody. The lawsuit accuses correction officers of abuse and torture in the weeks that followed the uprising and said the lack of decent medical care in the prison violated the Eighth Amendment. In a Nov. 28 statement, attorney Stephen Hampton said the physical and verbal abuse continues to this day.

They took my glasses off my face and stomped on them, then sprayed pepper spray in my eyes, nose, and mouth.

Prisoner at the Vaughn facility in a statement

After the uprising, all prisoners were moved out of C-19 to other units or prisons. As the weeks passed, abuse in the form of group cell shakedowns occurred throughout the prison. From Feb. 13 until April 2017, prisoners allege, CERT officers in riot gear performed aggressive shakedowns in which they physically abused and beat prisoners, took medical property, destroyed personal property, and conducted humiliating strip searches. One person described his abuse as sexual assault.

Fifteen prisoners await trial for charges related to the riot and Floyd’s death. In his statement, Hampton accuses corrections officers of continuing cell shakedowns and targeting the tier filled with potential witnesses in the riot trial in a shakedown as recent as Oct. 31. He says prisoners were handcuffed and strip searched, then ordered outside in cold weather wearing little clothing and forced to stare at the wall. When they returned to their cells hours later, some prisoners found their personal property either missing or destroyed.

Similar tactics have allegedly surfaced in other prisons around the country in response to actions or riots by prisoners. According to the National Lawyers Guild, prisoners from Washington State to Florida reported guards using excessive force and solitary confinement in retaliation for the 2016 national prison strike. After hundreds of people incarcerated at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan participated in a work stoppage and then a silent protest in conjunction with the strike, prisoners reported that officers retaliated by breaking property, underfeeding prisoners, conducting “malicious” cell shakedowns, and not providing basic necessities such as toothpaste. Some prisoners at Kinross reported soiling themselves after being restrained and forced to stand outside in the rain for hours, according to the National Lawyers Guild. More recently, in South Carolina, the Department of Corrections put most of its prisons on lockdown for over five months after a prison riot left seven prisoners dead in April of this year.

The poor medical care that helped spark the revolt has persisted not just in Vaughn but throughout Delaware prisons, Hampton said.

“Commissioner Phelps and Governor Carney also know or certainly should know that people are dying and suffering horribly in DOC prisons because of the lack of healthcare and the indifference of the correctional and medical staffs,” Hampton wrote in the statement he shared with The Appeal.

Prisoners were handcuffed and strip searched, then ordered outside in cold weather wearing little clothing and forced to stare at the wall.

“There are many inmates with serious medical conditions who are not receiving care for their conditions and DOC and Connections employees seem indifferent to their suffering and need for treatment.”

Medical care in Delaware prisons is provided by Connections Community Support Programs. Hampton alleged that two recent prison deaths were the result of poor medical care. On Oct. 8, 37-year-old Tiffany Reeves died while in Delaware Department of Correction custody. A month later, on Nov. 8, Luis Cabrera, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a potential witness in the current trial, died. The DOC has not released a cause of death for either person; however, the agency has said it does not suspect foul play. In his statement, Hampton has asserted that Reeves was not monitored consistently in the hours leading up to her death, despite being on a 12-hour intoxication hold. The statement also states that Cabrera died of a untreated perforated ulcer and he had been complaining of stomach pains in the weeks leading up to his death, according to his cellmate.

The DOC did not respond to a request for comment including questions on the deaths of Tiffany Reeves and Luis Cabrera.

“Delaware prisons are just horrible, all the way through,” Hampton told The Appeal by phone. “It’s gone from bad to worse in the last couple of years. The medical provider is as bad as you can imagine … and people are dying because of what Connections is doing or not doing.”