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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Class Action Likens Ferguson Jail|to a Modern-Day Debtors’ Prison

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Jails in Ferguson, Mo., and nearby Jennings are little more than modern-day debtors' prisons for people so poor they can't afford to pay traffic tickets, 15 people claim in two federal class actions against the cities.

Lead plaintiff Keilee Fant sued Ferguson with 10 other named plaintiffs. Fant also is a plaintiff in lead plaintiff Samantha Jenkins' lawsuit against Jennings.

The plaintiffs call themselves "impoverished people" in both Feb. 8 complaints.

They claim they were jailed because they could not pay fines for traffic violations and other minor offenses.

"Although the plaintiffs pleaded that they were unable to pay due to their poverty, each was held in jail indefinitely and none was afforded a lawyer or the inquiry into their ability to pay that the United States Constitution requires," the complaints state. "Instead, they were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom or until city jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to let them out for free."

The plaintiffs say they languished in deplorable conditions inside the jails.

"They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the city does not clean; they develop untreated illnesses and infections in open wounds that spread to other inmates; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water that comes from an apparatus on top of the toilet; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, legal materials, television, or natural light," the complaints state. "Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave."

Conditions in the Jennings jail are so bad that when groups of inmates are brought to court, courtroom staff "often walks down the hallway spraying Fabreze because the stench emanating from the inmates is unbearable," according to the 62-page complaint against Jennings.

The plaintiffs claim that Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any Missouri city with more than 10,000 residents. In 2014, Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, in cases mostly involving unpaid traffic tickets, according to the 55-page complaint.


The plaintiffs say that if the rest of the St. Louis metropolitan area generated revenue from its courts at the rate Ferguson does, it would have made $1.3 billion in the past five years.

The plaintiffs claim Jennings issued an average of more than 2.1 arrest warrants per household and almost 1.4 arrest warrants for every adult in 2014, mostly for unpaid traffic tickets. They say that if the rest of the St. Louis metropolitan area generated revenue from its courts at the rate Jennings does, it would have made $670 million in the past five years.

The plaintiffs claim that the cities' practices "devastated the city's poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings. The families of indigent people borrow money to buy their loved ones out of jail at rates set arbitrarily by jail officials, only for them later to owe more money ... from increased fees and surcharges. Thousands of people like the plaintiffs take money from their disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges."

The plaintiffs claim the cycle of court-imposed poverty lasts weeks, months and even years.

Complaints about municipal court abuses became an underlying theme during the protests sparked by the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014. Many protesters claimed that excessive charges and fees imposed by municipal courts in the area created a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity.

Ferguson denied it.

"We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said in a statement Monday. "It is our hope that the suit will be handled according to the rule of law and the rules of procedure in the federal courts, and not through the media."

Knowles said in the statement that since Aug. 19, 2010, Ferguson jail police requires that no prisoner be held for more than 72 hours; that the jail and holding facility be kept in a sanitary condition with adequate air circulation; that detainees have access to a toilet, wash basin and drinking water; that fire retardant bedding be provided to all detainees so long as the detainee is not suicidal; and that the facility be cleaned on a daily basis when occupied.

The statement added that the Ferguson Police Department has undergone a $4.5 million renovation between April 2013 and January 2015, which included improvements to the jail.

The city of Jennings had no comment.

The complaints propose two classes - a declaratory and injunctive class and a damages class.

The declaratory and injunctive class consists of all people who owe or who or will incur debts from Ferguson and Jennings from fines, fees, costs, or surcharges from cases prosecuted by the cities.

The damages class consists of all people who, from Feb. 8, 2010 until the present, were held in jail by the defendants because of nonpayment of a monetary sum required by the defendants.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, stating that the defendants' practices are unconstitutional and a ruling prohibiting those practices.

The lawsuits were filed by Alec Karakatsanis with Equal Justice Under Law in Washington D.C. in conjunction with the St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit group, and by St. Louis University School of Law.

Ferguson and Jennings are working-class suburbs in north St. Louis County, about 10 miles northwest of the St. Louis city limits.

Ferguson, which has become the epicenter of nationwide anti-police demonstrations since the Brown shooting, has a median household income of $36,121, which is 20 percent below the statewide median of $45,321, according to city-data.com. Almost 65 percent of Ferguson's population is African-American.

Jennings has a median household income of $30,273, which is 33 percent below the statewide median. Almost 87 percent of Jennings' population is African-American.

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