Lawyer claims Delaware prisons routinely mistreat inmates

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 lawsuit against the state of Delaware claims prisoners have been routinely mistreated since a deadly riot in February 2017.

Prisoners have been beaten, kicked, spit on, and abused with racial taunts, said Dover attorney Stephen Hampton who represents some 80 inmates in the suit against Delaware Gov. John Carney and other state leaders. Correctional officers are targeting inmates who may be called as witnesses in criminal trials about who is responsible for killing Lt. Stephen Floyd in the uprising, he said.

“Such things as correctional officers telling them they’re the ones who should be on trial, they’re the ones that are responsible for Floyd’s death, and really bullying the inmates,” Hampton said of the alleged abuse behind bars. “Complaints about not getting enough food and the food apparently, in their view, not seeming right, like it’s been adulterated in some manner.”

Poor health care — one of the major problems inmates cited as reasons for the riot — continues to be an issue, he said.

“It seems unlikely that DOC or [health care provider] Connections will do anything to protect any inmate’s health or safety,” Hampton said.

Two inmates connected with the trials have died in recent weeks.

On Nov. 22, Kelly Gibbs died in prison in Wilmington after pleading guilty to lesser charges in connection with the riot. Though prison officials would not say how Gibbs died, Hampton said he committed suicide.

Gibbs pleaded guilty to riot, kidnapping and conspiracy charges in connection with the uprising. Gibbs was incarcerated at Vaughn in 2008. He was serving a 24-year sentence for second-degree murder, firearm possession, and promoting prison contraband, among other crimes.

During the trial, inmate Royal Downs testified that, after the call went out that Floyd had been injured, he saw Gibbs, his cellmate, with blood on his clothes.

The trial for the first group of inmates ended this month with two of the three found guilty of charges connected to the riot.

Another inmate, Luis Cabrera, who was serving a life sentence for three counts of murder, was found dead in the Wilmington prison on Nov. 8. Cabrera, who suffered a perforated bulge in his intestine, was a potential witness in the prison riot trial. Hampton said both deaths could have been prevented.

“It’s been an ongoing battle trying to get the Department of Corrections to really live up to their own procedures manual, which if they followed, this wouldn’t be happening … we’re sort of in at least as bad a situation as we were before.”

Representatives of the state Department of Correction would not comment on the allegations.

Over the next few months, the case against inmates will continue as other defendants are divided into groups for subsequent trials. Jury selection for the second group of inmates was originally estimated to begin Nov. 13, but the first trial continued through that date. A new date for jury selection has not yet been scheduled.

WHYY’s Zoë Read contributed to this report.

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