State seeks to dismiss inmates’ Vaughn riot lawsuit

WILMINGTON — Attorneys for the state argued Thursday for the dismissal of a class action lawsuit filed by inmates who claim abuse during and after the uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 1.

In the new 20-page filing Deputy Attorney General Joseph Handlon argues that the allegations are “broad and undefined” and state officials named as defendants in the lawsuit are protected from civil liability in the reasonable performance of their jobs.

The original lawsuit brought by inmate, Donald Parkell, 40, was filed in late February. Parkell claimed in a 14-page handwritten filing that he was held hostage during the siege and no more than 10 prisoners were behind the takeover of Building C.

Eighteen inmates were indicted last month on charges related to the riot — including sixteen accused of the murder of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.

Parkell claimed to be one of the “three” inmates who protected counselor Patricia May (a hostage) during the uprising. Parkell, who is currently incarcerated at Vaughn, according to an online prison registry, has filed a series of actions against the Delaware Department of Correction in the past.

The lawsuit lists former Gov. Jack Markell, former Vaughn Warden David Pierce, current Warden Dana Metzger, Department of Correction commissioner Perry Phelps and several other administration officials. Specifically, it alleges that Parkell and other inmates were beaten during the hostage rescue and suffered property damage.

Additionally, it claims that inmates were unconstitutionally denied medical treatment and religious diets in the wake of the incident.

In the recent filing, the state’s Mr. Handlon said that most of the defendants are protected against Parkell’s claims. He writes:

“Qualified immunity protects state officials from civil liability when they perform their duties reasonably, and allows them to carry out their duties without the ever-looming fear and distractions inherent in litigation.”

As of late October, the DOC is still in the middle of a department-led internal affairs investigation into the causes of the uprising. Since the riot, there have been several high profile administrations changes.

About 20 days after the uprising former Vaughn prison warden David Pierce was reassigned to the Bureau of Community Corrections. In mid-May, Christopher Klein, chief of the Bureau of Prisons, accepted a new job as deputy principal assistant at the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security — led by Robert Coupe (also named in Parkell’s lawsuit), his former boss at the DOC.

On Oct. 20, the security superintendent at Vaughn during the uprising was fired.

The DOC refused to provide a reason for the changes as “personnel records are private.”

Mr. Handlon also claims Parkell doesn’t adequately connect any of the defendants to his allegation. The filing states:

“He provides strikingly little information connecting any of the named defendants to the alleged wrongdoing. Several of the individual defendants are not mentioned once in the Amended Complaint. Governor Markell is held responsible merely for making budgetary decisions which resulted in more vacancies and overtime among corrections staff; other high-level corrections officials are held responsible just for implementing the Governor’s policies.”

Correctional officers held hostage during the incident and the estate of Lt. Floyd also have a pending lawsuit against the state (and several of the same defendants) that uses similar rationale.

Their lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as letters of apology for “neglect” and enacting policies that they claim led directly to the uprising.

The state’s attorneys have also made a motion to dismiss that suit. Oral arguments in that case are scheduled to begin Nov. 20.

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