ACLU escalates Delaware prison lawsuit, says ‘physical abuse is the majority culture’

The civil rights organization sued Sussex Correctional Center in December on behalf of two detainees. Now 17 more current and former prisoners have joined the case.

Overhead photo of the prison complex

Sussex Correctional Institution (Del. Dept. of Correction)

One Black prisoner claims he complained after a guard at Sussex Correctional Institution gave his bedsheet to a white prisoner, and in return was tackled, punched, and pepper-sprayed.

Another prisoner says he endured a similar beating because he used a bed sheet to cover his genitals when a female guard was on watch in his cell block.

After one man asked to use the phone during the prisoner intake process, he claims he was tripped, kicked, and pepper-sprayed by officers, one of whom knelt on his neck.

Those three men are among 19 current or former people held at Delaware’s prison for men in Sussex County who are now plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit claiming excessive force, assault, lack of adequate medical care, failure to supervise, and other civil rights violations.

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The sweeping lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Wilmington amends one filed in December by the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware on behalf of two men held pending trial at the prison.

Many of the 19 men claim in the lawsuit that they filed grievances but their complaints were rejected or ignored by the prison brass, who refused to review footage from video cameras that might have captured the alleged assaults.

ACLU attorney Susan Burke said her agency received dozens of calls from current and former prisoners after the initial case was filed. She said more prisoners will soon be added to the case.

“The scope and the scale of the physical abuse down at SCI is just far broader than we had anticipated when we first filed,’’ Burke said.

Jason Miller, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Correction, said officials had no comment on the new filing and the 17 new allegations. When the initial case was filed, Miller said officials were “reviewing” the allegations made by Isaac Montague and William Davis and “will respond to the court.”

The initial case claimed Montague and Davis were severely beaten without provocation by the same guard, Kirk Neal, that other colleagues joined the attacks, and the actions were condoned by warden Truman Mears and deputy warden Jon Beck.

Neal is accused in several of the new alleged attacks but the amended lawsuit identifies 31 other officers as defendants plus others identified only as “John Does.”

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, also would not comment on the lawsuit.

Burke said the flurry of new accusations that followed the ACLU’s December filing illustrate what she sees as a disturbing pattern of unprovoked violence against SCI’s 1,050 sentenced prisoners and detainees.

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“What the evidence is revealing is that you have a facility where physical abuse is the majority culture,” Burke said. “You have a lack of leadership and you have a lack of accountability structures.

“The folks who were assaulted filed grievances, raised the issue within the structure that’s provided for prisoners to grieve the matters. And yet nothing was done, so their pleas for help internally were ignored. When you have this pattern and practice, that tells you that the leadership at the prison is aware of the practices and yet does not step up to change them.”

Prisoner claims officer kneed him in the face, bloodied eye

Consider the allegation by Neki Gibbs.

Gibbs claims correctional officer Ryan Maddox pepper-sprayed the left side of his face using “excessive amounts” of the chemical that causes acute eye pain, temporary blindness, shortness of breath, gagging and other symptoms.

After a “brief tussle,’’ Gibbs claims he laid on the floor and Maddox held him down with his knee, hit him in the head and kneed him in the face, causing a bloody gash to his left eyebrow.

Maddox then had Gibbs transferred to the larger James T. Vaughn Correctional Center for men near Smyrna, where he was put into the Security Housing Unit, known behind bars as “the hole.’’

Gibbs says that despite his “obvious eye injury,’’ he didn’t receive an adequate medical exam or treatment and Maddox told him, “You think we’re going to give you any kind of help after what you did?”

His request for stitches was denied and now he has a large permanent scar over his left eyelid, the lawsuit claims.

Gibbs alleges he previously filed grievances against Maddox that were ignored, and instead was told he was “imagining” the mistreatment.

Burke also said “there is no excuse for failure to review” video footage when it’s available, and that ACLU attorneys would seek to have them produced during the litigation.

“We don’t have any pattern of investigations,’’ she said. “We don’t have any evidence that there’s been fact-finding on the part of the Department of Correction. We’ll get into discovery and we’ll be able to see all the files and see all the videotapes.”

She acknowledged the case won’t be resolved anytime soon. “It won’t be quick,’’ she said. “This is major complex federal litigation. So it doesn’t move rapidly.”

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