An updated lawsuit filed against correctional officers and officials at Sussex Correctional Institution paints a picture of a pattern of cruelty and brutal physical abuse by correctional officers at the prison south of Georgetown, with top officials knowing about the abuse but failing to stop it.
Two inmates had previously filed the lawsuit, but it has now been amended with 19 other current and former prisoners making similar allegations.
The defendants now include 33 named prison employees, including correctional officers, the warden and the deputy warden.
Attorneys from the ACLU of Delaware are working with Wilmington attorney Daniel Griffith in the lawsuit against the prison staff.
The inmates and former inmates say their constitutional rights were violated, including the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, and they are asking for compensation, punitive damages, coverage of attorney costs and other relief the court may offer.
The warden and deputy warden are accused of “allowing and encouraging a system of abusive conduct by correctional officers to become a de facto policy at SCI.”
All we have are the inmates’ side of the story, as prison officials have declined to give theirs. Jason Miller, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, declined to comment on the new allegations, whether the department is investigating the claims internally, or whether it might take action outside the court case.
“Due to pending litigation before the court we cannot comment,” Miller said in an email.
The lawsuit details many incidents inmates say took place in 2020 and 2021. The details are many and varied, but often follow a similar violent pattern: Guards making an unprovoked assault, or responding to a request or minor dispute with assault. That might include tripping or tackling the prisoners to the ground, repeatedly pepper spraying them in the face, punching and kicking them and in multiple cases bashing their heads into doors. The guards are also accused of verbal abuse, including slurs and mockery of prisoners who were being abused. Often in the accounts, other officers rush to the scene and join in the assault.
Prisoners recount being left bloodied, and then being punished after the assaults and written up on false charges. They say they are retaliated against if they file grievances, which are often ignored or dismissed anyway. They frequently describe very inadequate medical treatment and say they suffered from fear, anxiety and other mental health issues afterward. A couple of prisoners said they were pressured to drop their claims or admit guilt to avoid further consequences.
Also in the lawsuit, one of the plaintiffs alleges that despite an inmate reference manual that states “every inmate has the right to do his time with dignity,” they are forced to use the bathroom and shower in front of other inmates and officers, including female officers, with no privacy.
“Correctional officers continue to watch inmates perform bodily functions without serving any legitimate purpose,” the lawsuit states.
One person who comes up most often in the accounts is correctional officer Kirk Neal, although an officer identified as Officer Vernet and others are also mentioned multiple times.
For example, here’s one of the new stories:
Aaron Givens, a former inmate from Laurel, said after being processed on intake to the prison, he asked for treatment for withdrawal symptoms. Neal, he said, opened his cell door and tackled him to the ground, causing Givens to hit his face on a desk. Neal then put his knee in Givens’ back, and when Givens said he couldn’t breathe, Neal put a can of pepper spray in his mouth, “forcing large amounts of pepper spray into Plaintiff Givens’ body,” the lawsuit states. Givens said he was punished after the incident and not given adequate treatment for a black eye, bruised ribs and injuries from the pepper spray.
Another former inmate said Neal, in a similar assault, pepper sprayed his own hands then rubbed them in the inmate’s eyes.
Other inmates reported guards forcing them to put their pepper-sprayed hands in their mouth or on their genitals.
Ex-inmate Michael Kline of Millsboro said he was taken to Christiana Hospital with severe injuries after a beating, and while he was there a correctional officer punched him in the jaw while he was handcuffed to his hospital bed.
“We’re concerned about the treatment of people housed at Sussex Correctional Institution, and we continue to monitor that treatment as this litigation moves ahead,” said Dwayne Bensing, staff attorney at the ACLU of Delaware, in a statement. “Ultimately, we hope the litigation eradicates the culture of brutality that currently prevails.”
Reporter Xerxes Wilson, in an article about the lawsuit for the News Journal, noted that the Delaware Department of Correction has consistently denied News Journal reporters, and the public generally, the ability to review evidence, citing exemptions to the state's public records law.
Wilson also wrote about years of excessive force accusations against officer Kirk Neal.
The full text of the lawsuit is available online from the ACLU and gives more details on the allegations, which are often graphic.