In rare verdict, jury awards Delaware prisoner $65K

Listen 1:25
Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, Del. (Suchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal via AP, File)

Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, Del. (Suchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal via AP, File)

Public allegations about mistreatment of Delaware prisoners by correctional officers have been commonplace since a riot two years ago ended with one guard murdered.

Accusations have surfaced at several public meetings and one major lawsuit was recently filed on behalf of 80 inmates who claim abuse by their captors before and after the February 2017 uprising.

Dover attorney Steve Hampton filed that sweeping lawsuit in October. Hampton frequently takes on the Department of Correction, but said civil cases charging excessive force almost always end in dismissal or settlement.

So this week, Hampton was delighted when a Superior Court jury decided a civil case against a guard accused of brutalizing a detainee.

Jurors found Corporal Eben Boyce committed assault and battery and violated prisoner Jake Fox’s constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. Jurors awarded Fox $65,000.

“These are difficult cases, as you can imagine,’’ Hampton said. “People either in pretrial lockup or fully incarcerated don’t always get the benefit of the doubt, but the jury heard the case and I think rightly so found that my client was credible and theirs less so.”

Fox was in Sussex County Courthouse in 2012 for arraignment on felony theft, burglary and other charges.

News accounts show Fox, then 22, was accused of entering unoccupied homes and stealing jewelry, televisions, electronics, cash and prescription medication, then selling them at pawn shops.

He had been held at the Sussex Correctional Institution because he couldn’t post $63,100 secured bond. On the day of his encounter with Boyce, Fox was being moved from a holding cell at the courthouse to the courtroom.

While passing another holding cell, Fox looked inside to see if he recognized somebody, the suit said.

Jake Fox needed nine stitches to close the wound in his head. (Courtesy of Stephen Hampton law office)

Fox had not spoken to anyone in the cell and said, “Excuse me, sir’’ to Boyce, the suit said.

In response, Boyce “immediately charged Mr. Fox yelling “What the f— did you say, boy?” Then he grabbed Fox “by his shirt, lifted him off the ground and slammed him into the concrete floor, then repeatedly slammed him into the floor. Mr. Fox was in leg shackles and handcuffs throughout this vicious attack and was defenseless,’’ the suit said.

Fox was so dazed that the hearing was postponed. He needed nine stitches to close the wound.

In his defense, Boyce claimed Fox raised his arms in a threatening manner, so he took him to the ground. During a pretrial stipulation, his lawyers wrote that there was “brief contact’’ and then Boyce picked Fox up and took him to an interview room to meet with his lawyer. Later, the defense wrote, Fox “was found to be bleeding in the back of his head.”

Hampton filed suit against Fox in 2014 but the case didn’t reach a courtroom until this year.

The lawsuit said Boyce was never disciplined for the encounter. He was not charged criminally.

Prison officials would not comment on his disciplinary record, but said Boyce has been a correctional officer since 2000 and since the encounter has been promoted to lieutenant.

Fox was later convicted of burglary. In 2018 he was sentenced to five years in prison on a violation of probation.

Geoff Klopp, president of the correctional officers’ union, said Boyce could not comment on the encounter or the verdict.

Klopp said the union disagreed with the verdict and he criticized Hampton for filing the new case related to the uprising.

“It’s discouraging that Mr. Hampton would use his energies in this manner when it could be far more productive in helping getting innocent inmates out of jail than to collect a paycheck,’’ Klopp said.

Abuse by guards ‘no secret,’ October lawsuit says

The 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the main prison for men in Delaware,  ended with the death of Sgt. Steven Floyd, who was posthumously promoted to lieutenant.

The state originally planned for four trials of 18 inmates on murder, kidnapping, riot and other charges.

After two trials, one defendant was found guilty of murder and a second of other charges. Since the second trial in February ended with no convictions, the state has said it will only prosecute three more prisoners.

The uprising led to reforms of how the state treats its inmates. In December, a $7.5 million settlement was reached between the riot’s victims and the state. But it also unleashed claims at public meetings that inmates have been abused for years.

In the case Hampton filed in October, the inmates claim that prior to the hostage siege at Vaughn, “it was no secret’’ that guards “illegally abused, mistreated, and tortured inmates with virtually nothing being done by their …  supervisors, to stop them.”

The lawsuit, which also names Gov. John Carney, asserts that “elected officials with oversight of the DOC, including governors, ignored all of the complaints that the Department of Correction was simply warehousing inmates, allowing correctional officers to abuse them, providing them with very little rehabilitation or education, and denying them adequate healthcare for serious injuries and illnesses.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.