Lawsuit: Inmates cries for help were ignored before suicide death

Vaughn prison in Smyrna, Delaware was the scene of a deadly riot in February 2017.  (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Vaughn prison in Smyrna, Delaware was the scene of a deadly riot in February 2017. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

A Delaware inmate’s reports of sexual assault and bullying were ignored prior to his suicide two years ago, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Kelly Sarro is suing former and current Department of Correction officials and DOC’s contracted healthcare provider Connections Community Support Programs for her 23-year-old son’s death.

The lawsuit alleges Darius Sarro was raped and bullied by other inmates on multiple occasions over a two-year period, while housed at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna and Morris Community Corrections Center in Dover. Sarro killed himself at the Dover facility.

“It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened, and it’s a tragedy that will happen again,” warned Sarro’s attorney Stephen Hampton.

“The cavalier attitude toward the fact this fellow is in great distress, and the cavalier attitude toward the fact he’s being abused and bullied and sexually molested, and they’re not really doing anything about it — not even investigated.”

A youthful-looking Sarro, who was slight in height and stature, was housed with much larger inmates, some serving time for murder, the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint states his physical characteristics, and the fact he was a registered sex offender, made him vulnerable to sexual abuse by other inmates. Hampton said Sarro was on the registry because when he was 19 he thought he was having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old. But the girl was really 13 and he was prosecuted.

Sarro complained to DOC staff on multiple occasions that he was sexually assaulted and bullied — on one occasion he was taken to the hospital after being raped. However, the lawsuit alleges neither DOC nor healthcare staff attempted to separate him from other inmates or investigate the allegations.

“They all knew their failure to do so would subject Darius to all types of abuse including rape, and could lead to him killing himself to escape the torment he was suffering while in custody,” the complaint reads.

Throughout his incarceration, Sarro wrote numerous sick-call requests to receive mental health treatment, but the lawsuit alleges he didn’t receive the proper care — waiting an entire month to get an appointment after one request.

Sarro had a history of mental illness, including a suicide attempt prior to serving his sentence. He said he was sexually abused as a child, and the assaults from inmates triggered PTSD. Sarro said he was severely depressed and anxious, and feared for his safety.

“I need to speak to someone ASAP! There is some serious bullying going on in my vent. Every day it’s harder to cope … I feel like flipping out,” he wrote in one request.

Sarro expressed the desire to kill himself on multiple occasions, telling one nurse he wanted to “kill myself because I’m going to have to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life and my family is not going to see me and it makes me want to end it all.”

During his incarceration, he attempted to kill himself twice before — one time by hanging himself with Saran wrap and a second time by hanging himself with a laundry bag string. Still, the lawsuit alleges nothing was done to prevent additional suicide attempts.

“All the DOC defendants know there have been many suicides in DOC facilities prior to that of Darius and many more suicide attempts that haven’t been reported. Yet none have done anything to improve the mental health care for inmates or been an advocate for DOC to take suicide seriously and insist DOC staff take steps to address suicides,” the complaint reads.

Hampton said DOC and Connections also ignore reports of abuse frequently.

“In the years they’ve been covering any of these cases do they remember any criminal prosecutions of sexual abuse of an inmate by another inmate? There aren’t any,” he said.

“They don’t investigate these things, they don’t prosecute — the only ones I’m aware of are the ones where the corrections officers are caught having sex with the inmates.”

Hampton also represents the family of Luis Cabrera, an inmate who died of a perforated duodenal ulcer in 2018. The lawsuit claims medical staff ignored his symptoms and failed to provide adequate medical care.

The attorney said more lawsuits against DOC and Connections are upcoming.

A DOC spokesman said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

A Connections spokesman wrote that they have not had an opportunity to fully review the lawsuit and can’t comment on particulars, but added; “Connections takes its role in assisting people who are facing extreme stress seriously, especially those with mental health issues, and regularly reviews and updates its procedures for screening, assessment, and intervention for people at risk. It is clear that Mr. Sarro faced a lifetime of significant mental health issues, and our condolences go out to his family and loved ones.”

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