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Stark Greenlights Inmate Claim Against Officials Stemming From Prison Uprising

James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware. Photo: Patrick Semansky

A Delaware federal judge has allowed an inmate at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center to proceed with a lawsuit alleging that failures by top corrections officials led to a violent takeover of the prison's C Building in 2017.

U.S. Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark of the District of Delaware ruled this week that Donald Parkell had supported claims that Perry Phelps and Robert Coupe, the current and former commissioners, respectively, of the Delaware Department of Corrections, had undermined a 2016 court settlement requiring increased security, better mental health services at the prison, and more out-of-cell time for prisoners placed in restrictive housing.

The suit, filed just two weeks after the uprising in February 2017, also names former JTVCC warden David Pierce as a defendant for Parkell's Eighth Amendment "failure to protect" claim.

Stark's March 31 ruling was the latest development in a winding case that seeks to hold state officials responsible for allegedly creating a "toxic" environment that allowed the takeover to occur at the Smyrna prison.

Parkell, a medium security prisoner in JTVCC's C Building, initially filed a handwritten complaint in the weeks following the takeover, accusing state officials of abuses in the wake of the ordeal, which left veteran corrections officer Steven Floyd dead.

According to the complaint, the DOC brass created a “volatile mix” of mentally ill inmates and rival gang members in the recreation yard, which paved the way for a “mass movement” among prisoners. The practices at the prison, Parkell alleged, had violated a 2016 settlement between the DOC and Community Legal Aid Society Inc., which mandated safer conditions at the prison.

Last June, Stark rejected the bulk of Parkell’s claims, but allowed him to amend his complaint for a fourth and final time.

Parkell later dropped claims against former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Dana Metzger, who took over as warden after Pierce was placed on administrative leave. The latest version of the lawsuit, however, asserted Eighth Amendment claims against Pierce, Coupe and Phelps.

In his ruling, Stark rejected claims that the officials had ordered medical and mental health treatment to be withheld in retaliation for the uprising, saying that Parkell had not provided any detailed facts concerning the alleged orders.

"Plaintiff's new allegations are too conclusory to be presumed true," he wrote in a five-page memorandum order.

The failure to protect claim, on the other hand, cited specifics from the CLASI settlement order, as well as a 2005 report from a state task force recommending enhanced security at the prison, Stark said.

Attorneys from the Delaware Department of Justice's Defensive Litigation Unit had argued that Pierce and Coupe acted reasonably in trying to comply with the CLASI order and challenged the connection Parkell drew between the two.

"The foreseeability of the riot in connection with the implementation of the CLASI Order is especially questionable because the CLASI order did not pertain to C-Building, where the riot occurred," unit head Joseph C. Handlon wrote in August.

Handlon also argued the defendants were protected by qualified immunity, which shields government officials from being sued for actions performed within their official capacity. Stark, who previously found that the factual allegations supported a "reasonable inference" that the siege would not have occurred if it weren't for the challenged policies, said he would revisit the issue of qualified immunity at a later date.

A DOJ spokesman referred a request for comment to the DOC, which did not respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment on the ruling.

James S. Green Sr., who is representing Parkell in the suit, was not immediately available to comment.

The case is captioned Parkell v. Pierce.