'Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant'
DeVaughn Ward exposes shady prison practices
Published in 2020 Connecticut Super Lawyers magazine on October 13, 2020
When Wayne World’s brother first called DeVaughn Ward in 2017, Ward initially brushed it off.
“I get calls like that all the time,” Ward says. But when he agreed to meet World, who was incarcerated at Osborn Correctional Institution, he discovered a case more serious than he’d expected.
“When Wayne enters the room, he’s wrapped like a mummy,” Ward says. “They told him that he had psoriasis for two and a half years, and while they were telling him that, they were denying him a biopsy and a dermatology consult.” He developed severe sores over 90 percent of his body.
World was eventually sent for a biopsy, where he was diagnosed with stage 4 skin cancer. He started reaching out to lawyers and firms, but no one would talk to him. After talking to World for just 10 minutes, Ward knew he was looking at a six- or seven-figure case.
“It’s a common thing that I see within communities of color, where they have cases that are high-value with very complex legal issues, but they don’t have access to legal services,” he says. “There aren’t many lawyers that are willing to tell these stories.”
Ward wanted the case. But first, he needed to be admitted to the federal bar and, since this would be his first federal case, find someone who could help. He teamed up with civil litigator Kenneth Krayeske.
Ward’s evaluation of the case was affirmed the first time he spoke to the AG. “I just got sworn into the federal bar maybe a week ago, and you’re offering me $100,000 to settle, and I haven’t filed a single motion,” Ward says. “I was like, ‘OK, well, something’s going on here.’”
In 2018, Ward and Krayeske saw World released from prison because his life expectancy was so limited, and settled the case for $1.3 million. But it wasn’t over. “Wayne was a piece of a larger systematic issue that DOC had already internally identified,” Ward says. One client, a 19-year-old, died due to lupus, a treatable disease. They have also uncovered rampant hepatitis C cases. “We represented a class of inmates which included every single inmate in DOC,” Ward says. The class action led to a multimillion-dollar settlement that is awaiting legislative approval, but will ultimately provide guaranteed testing, treatment and monitoring for DOC patients.
Ward also has individual cases, like that of Tianna Laboy. In 2018, she delivered a baby on a toilet. “She was in labor for days, and they ignored her,” Ward says.
The security investigation report, Ward says, “essentially admits that … there were multiple breaches in the standard of care, that there was no OB-GYN training for any of the nurses at the only female prison in the state: things that show liability.”
But the state AG fought back, deploying hard-nosed litigation tactics to try to push liability on Laboy and offered a nominal settlement amount.
“It’s hard for me to work on these cases knowing that the state is doing these kinds of things,” Ward says. “And largely, when they do these things, it’s to people from communities of color.”
Butting heads with the state means adopting a new legal strategy. “What I found is it’s important to control the public narrative,” he says. “I think that we’ve done a pretty good job at getting a number of these stories press coverage, and I believe that moved the needle. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, right?”
The DOC has made changes to its health care, but to Ward, conditions aren’t better. DOC canceled its contract with UConn—the agency that provided care—during World’s case, but hasn’t replaced it. “Unfortunately, I think DOC is in a worse position now than they were when UConn was handling their health care because there are no real medical professionals, essentially,” Ward says. “There’s been some progress, but certainly not enough.”
As an elementary student, Ward met attorney John Brittain at school and saw his future. Now he’s paying it forward.
In 2015, he and pastor AJ Johnson gathered more than 100 Black professionals to meet students at school. “We really wanted to do something to encourage the students to take their education seriously, but also to change the narrative around our community,” Ward says.
The event has since expanded to four Hartford schools. “I see so much of myself in those kids,” Ward says.