steve hampton

The abuse at the hands of correctional officers which inmates said spurred a fatal riot at the James T. Vaughn Correctional riot last year is continuing, according to an attorney representing prisoners in a class-action lawsuit.

"It's as if they've learned nothing," said Steve Hampton.  

Hampton told WDEL he's concerned because letters continue to pour into his Dover office, revealing similar accounts of mistreatment happening behind bars in various buildings. The accounts are eerily similar even among men who haven't seen each other in years, Hampton said.

"Most recently, I've been getting particular complaints from inmates who were in C-19, and who might be witnesses in the criminal trial, about particularly bad treatment, including not getting adequate food, not being allowed to have their own personal property, not having any toiletries, and basically not getting anything because the correctional officers are refusing to get anything for them or to assist them in any way." 

He alleged correctional officers--still reeling from the death of one of their own, Lt. Steven Floyd--have been verbally taunting the inmates as well.  

"Telling them 'Look, you should be the one on trial; you're the one responsible; criminal charges ought to be filed against you,' which is really inappropriate...and it does not seem that anyone in the management is willing to step up and do anything about it."  

He added the treatment isn't good for correctional officers.

"It's not going to end well, eventually, for some correctional officer down the way, because there's always a lot more inmates than there are correctional officers, and if they decide at some point there's going to be a problem, there's going to be a problem, and I don't want that to happen for anybody." 

Since the first in a series of Vaughn trials began, two inmates connected to the trial died while in Department of Correction custody. WDEL was first to report the death of potential Vaughn witness, convicted murderer Luis Cabrera, who, at 49, died on November 8, 2018. 

"He died of a ruptured, basically a perforated ulcer...which would allow intestinal contents to spill into the abdominal cavity, cause peritonitis, ultimately sepsis, and death, which is appears to what have happened."

Hampton added Cabrera was sick over a period of time and wasn't given the proper medical care, including his prescribed medication.

"Eventually he fell over on the floor in one of the tiers, and including the fact that they delayed even helping him after he fell, rather than taking him to the hospital, they just took him to their own infirmary. He stayed there until he died," said Hampton. "This was something that was really, really preventable--he was not an old man."

Kelly Gibbs, 29, also died while in DOC custody on Thanksgiving Day after having pleaded guilty to charges of riot, conspiracy, and kidnapping in connection with the riot. He had originally been scheduled to go to trial on murder charges. The Delaware DOC did not elaborate on cause of death, but said foul play wasn't suspected.

"The privacy issue is most often than not a way to protect themselves; I don't believe they're terrible concerned about the privacy of the inmates--it's sort of a joke--they treat them like dirt, allow 'em to die, and then say they're concerned about their privacy; I don't get that--that's just an excuse to not acknowledge what they've done," said Hampton. 

Delaware Department of Correction spokeswoman Jayme Gravell had no comment.

The Dover attorney said Gibbs faced at least three increased risks of suicide, according to DOC's own procedures.

"Gibbs, from all accounts that we've gotten, hung himself. He had just been to court, taken a plea, and court appearances and that kind of thing are one of the risk factors, increased risk factors for suicide. And he was on a tier where a lot of the inmates were very hostile towards him because they perceived that he might be working for the prosecution, and then almost certainly, he was in a cell by himself--generally, inmates with cellmates don't hang themselves," said Hampton. "I'm relatively certain they did nothing about that to address that increased risk. So, yeah, he committed suicide because of his own initiative--however, what they allowed to continue greatly accelerated that desire, and it's something that could've been prevented." 

A third inmate also made what DOC spokeswoman Gravell called "suicidal gestures" last week while behind bars at Howard Young, but no one was injured. That inmate, Gravell told WDEL, was not tied to the Vaughn case. 

The ongoing abuse and inmates' deaths will become apart of Hampton's class-action lawsuit which was filed during the first of the Vaughn trials.  

"The medical care has been really, really, really bad the last couple years; Connections is just doing a really bad job of it, so that's not new," said Hampton.  "But I think that the inmate who are from C-19 get even less deference when it comes to medical care...although I'm getting plenty of complaints about inmates not getting treated for serious illness, serious conditions, potentially life-threatening conditions. So that's not just revenge--that's also just really, really poor medical care."

Connections, which cares for inmates, had no comment on the pending lawsuit.  

Hampton also has an issue with the way inmates, who are potential witnesses in this case, are allegedly being held together at Howard R. Young. Correctional Center.  

"It's crazy; I don't have any answer for why they've done that because it puts the inmates at great risk from one another if somebody perceives that someone else is going to testify for the prosecution. It could be something that results in violence--inmate against inmate--certainly puts a lot of fear into them," he said. "And I don't know how that particularly helps the criminal case. It seems to me, the last thing that you would do if you really care about the criminal case because now you have inmates who if they're called to testify are terrified to testify for fear of what will happen to them when they come back on the tier....it's just crazy that they're lumping them altogether."  

The goal of Hampton's lawsuit has been to effect change in the way of more humane treatment for inmates. But it will take political will.

"It never seems that we've had any politicians that step up and insist that it be done right; we've had, unfortunately, sort of a closed-shop...the same guys are revolving around between different positions in government and don't want to rock the boat because they know if they rock the boat, they won't get the promotion they won't get the judgeship, they won't get to be head of homeland security...so nobody's been willing, really, to come forward and rock the boat and say, 'This stuff isn't right, and we've got to fix it.'"  

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.