‘Kicking, choking, splitting people’s heads up’: 39 incarcerated men join lawsuit claiming assaults by officers at Delaware prison

The civil rights lawsuit began in January with just two plaintiffs alleging assaults by one officer. The claims and number of officers have grown exponentially.

Sussex Correctional Institution (Google maps)

Sussex Correctional Institution (Google maps)

Thirty-nine current and former prisoners now claim in a lawsuit they have been brutalized by “extreme, unprovoked and unnecessary” violence by officers at Delaware’s Sussex Correctional Institution.

That’s nearly twice the number of prisoners that were included in the lawsuit in February. The amended complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware now says more than 40 correctional officers have taken part in a “systemic pattern” of beatings since 2020 at the prison near Georgetown that’s known as SCI.

The lawsuit charges that the attacks have been condoned by warden Truman Mears and deputy warden Jon Beck.

The prison leaders’ policies “ratified and institutionalized this abusive and unlawful conduct’’ that included “the delay or denial of medical attention resulting from their assaults,” the lawsuit said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Neither the Department of Correction, nor SCI Sgt. Brian Clarke, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware, would comment on the latest escalation of the case in U.S. District Court in Wilmington. The case was first filed in January with just two plaintiffs claiming abuse against one officer.

ACLU attorney Dwayne Bensing said his office continues to receive alarming reports. “The complaints don’t stop,’’ he said. Bensing expects more incarcerated men to be added to the case in the coming months.

The prisoners’ claims “go far beyond what is necessary” in a correctional system, Bensing said. “We have allegations of correctional officers emptying bottles of pepper spray into the mouth and nose and ears of people. We have kicking, choking, splitting people’s heads up and using their bodies to open doors to bring them into other parts of the facility, dragging them across the floor.”

“Just really horrific instances of violence. That the list of defendants has grown to over 40 really demonstrates that there is an entire culture of systemic abuse occurring at this facility.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

He said many of those claiming abuse were detainees who have not yet been convicted of any crime but could not afford to post bail.

Read the second amended complaint by current and former prisoners at Sussex Correctional Institution:

Among the new accusations, the lawsuit claims:

  • Kyle Bullock, who was arrested in 2020 after a Black Lives Matter protest, said an unidentified officer pepper-sprayed him and punched him in the head with a right hook when he asked about the circumstances of his arrest. Though his head was swollen, he was never examined by medical staff for his injuries. Instead, he was taken to a cell on an empty tier where the shower did not work and he could not wash off the chemical spray.
  • Bradley Zahner said an officer knocked his breakfast tray out of his hand because mealtime was over, then pepper-sprayed him in the face and slammed him to the ground. His face hit the floor. Then the officer put his knee on Zahner’s back, causing  him to defecate. More officers joined the scene, with one putting his knee on Zahner’s head, resulting in his forehead splitting open and spurting blood. Then he was dragged by his arms to the infirmary before being put in solitary confinement for 20 days. He now has a large scar on his forehead.
  • Jimmie Moore says an officer in a work truck ran over his leg, so he obtained a no-contact order to keep him out of the Sussex prison. But this February, a year after that incident, he was placed there anyway and says he was abused by officers. They pepper-sprayed him and pushed him headfirst into a wall of his cell, injuring his head and neck. “I hope you die in there,’’ one officer allegedly said.

Lawyer Daniel A. Griffith, who is working with the ACLU on the case, says many plaintiffs have also been subjected to retaliation for joining the case.

The alleged retaliation includes “excessive force, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and being deprived of basic amenities,’’ Griffith said.

Griffith and the ACLU said any current or former prisoners, or their loved ones, can file a claim with the ACLU by filling out this intake form.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal