Inmate's lawsuit seeks to learn who allegedly ordered 'torture' of prisoners following Vaughn riot

Authorities amass outside the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center

Nine inmates charged with the murder of a correctional officer during a violent two-day prison riot in 2017 have now filed a federal lawsuit, claiming they, too, were abused in the riot's aftermath.

Dwayne Staats, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attack and the sole inmate convicted of the murder of Lt. Steven Floyd during the first set of trials against those involved, filed the handwritten lawsuit in U.S. District Court on January 17, 2019, along with Jarreau "Ruck" Ayers, Roman "Rome" Shankaras, Lawrence "Smoke" Michaels, Kevin Berry, Obadiah "OB" Miller, John Bramble, Abednego Baynes, and Abdul-Haqq El-Quadeer aka Louis Sierra.

All nine claim they were "physically, mentally, and emotionally" abused and mistreated for decades at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.

Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, former Warden David Pierce, and prison medical provider company Connections are among the defendants named in the lawsuit.

"The higher ranking officers and administration at JTVCC knew about the abuses and torment, permeating throughout the environment," the lawsuit said. "They chose to either support and encourage these behaviors or turn a blind eye to them."

They said conditions prior the riot included inconsistent policies and procedures, an adversarial culture, poor medical and mental health treatment, a lack of supervision and response to violence, limited access to rehabilitation programs, and a dysfunctional grievance system all led to the February 1 and 2, 2017 riot that killed Lt. Steven Floyd.

After the riot, the inmates alleged conditions grew worse. They claimed they were punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed, and struck by batons by Delaware and Maryland state troopers, correctional officers, and CERT teams as officials re-took the prison.

All plaintiffs claim they complied with officers' demands to lay on the ground with their hands behind their back. They said their hands were zip tied and "pulled as tight as possible causing unnecessary pain and nerve damage."

Staats claimed his forehead and mouth were "busted open" from being rammed into a pile of metal locker boxes as he was extracted from the building.

Ayers, who was not convicted of murder, but was found guilty of assault, kidnapping, and riot, claimed he already had limited mobility and was awaiting knee surgery when officers stomped on his face and back while another officer walked across his legs, causing further damage to his knee.

Shankaras, who was kicked out of the first group of inmates being tried so as not to jeopardize the case, claimed he received multiple bruises to his forehead, face, neck and chest.

"He was sprayed with mace all over his face, got stomped on his lower back, his mouth was bleeding. An unknown object got shoved near his rectum, and one of his teeth got chipped," the complaint said.

Michaels, who has yet to go to trial, claimed he suffered a bloody nose and two black eyes as well as a hickey on his forehead.

"While being choked by an officer, he was forced to open his mouth to get mace spayed directly down his throat," the complaint alleged.

Remaining plaintiffs, Miller, Berry, Bramble and Abduil-Haqq said their heads were banged against the walls by officers, and they were kicked, punched, and sprayed with mace, causing them to suffer severe headaches, bruising, and even concussions.

All inmates, except Baynes, claim they were forced to lie in pools of their own blood on freezing cement for hours.

They further claimed medical attention was either "non-existent" or "inadequate" for injuries they suffered at the hands of police and correctional officers.

"These 'check-ups' last approximately 30-40 seconds. That was just enough time to clean up the dried blood off our faces before we were hearded [sic] to the gym. This was medical negligence in its purest form," they allege.

In the days that followed, inmates claim sick calls were declined for three weeks

They add their personal property, including TVs, radios, clothes, food, fans, sneakers, letters and photos from loved ones--that can't be replaced--and other commissary items, were destroyed or disposed, and their mail was tampered with after the riot.

Their civil rights lawsuit alleges the unsafe prison conditions at JTVCC constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the brutal beatings while restrained was done "maliciously and sadistically" and constituted assault and battery under state law.

It mirrors a similar federal lawsuit filed by inmates, who were not charged in the riot.  Inmates charged with the murder of Floyd were not permitted to be a part of their class-action lawsuit due to a conflict of interest.  

The nine plaintiffs in the newly-filed lawsuit are seeking $300,000 in compensatory damages as well as $100,000 in punitive damages from most defendants.

The Delaware DOC and its medical provider Connections have consistently had no comment on pending litigation.

The second criminal trial in the prison riot, wherein Bramble, Baynes, Berry, and Miller are on trial for the murder of Floyd, is underway in New Castle County Superior Court.

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.