Class Calls St. Louis Pretrial Lockup Hell on Earth

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Pretrial detainees at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, known as “the Workhouse,” face “hellish and inhumane conditions,” including infestations of rats and snakes and officer-directed assaults, they say in a federal class action.

Represented by ArchCity Defenders, lead plaintiff James Cody filed the lawsuit Monday on behalf of seven named plaintiffs. Most were not convicted of any crime, but were “held prior to any determination of guilt or innocence solely because they lack the funds to purchase their freedom,” according to the 41-page complaint.

It’s the latest of dozens of lawsuits filed around the country this year, many of them class actions, challenging the incarceration of poor people for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or court fees.

“On any given day, detainees in the jail must endure infestations of rats, snakes, cockroaches, and other insects; extreme temperatures ranging from stifling heat in the summers to frigid cold in the winters; inconsistent and inadequate provision of medical care and mental health treatment; poor air quality and proliferation of mold caused by the jail’s lack of ventilation and inadequate sanitation; overcrowding; insufficient staffing; and a culture of fear created by frequent violence and retaliation, including by jail staff,” the complaint states. “These conditions not only violate the United States Constitution, but also run afoul of the most basic standards of human decency.”

An unidentified woman who answered the phone at the Workhouse on Monday afternoon said the defendant had no comment.

Blake Strode, the ArchCity Defenders attorney who filed the lawsuit, did not immediately return a call late Monday afternoon.

Plaintiff Jasmine Borden, a 32-year-old black woman, says in the complaint that she saw numerous constitutional violations while being held in The Workhouse as a pretrial detainee from May 15 to July 22 because she could not pay a $500 bond.

“While Ms. Borden was detained, she observed many unsanitary conditions that were either addressed insufficiently or not addressed at all: a bed bug infestation in the women’s unit; a woman who was left in her cell for four days while her toilet overflowed; a cell in which the toilet did not work at all and leaked into the cell below; and a cell that had black mold and ants,” the complaint states.

“Workhouse officials also failed to meet Ms. Borden’s and other women’s basic sanitary needs. The facility would routinely run out of toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and other female hygiene products, requiring that female detainees go three or four days without these items.”

The complaint continues: “Five pregnant women who were housed in Ms. Borden’s unit experienced complications with their pregnancies: one woman began leaking fluid late in her second trimester; another miscarried her child, which some detainees believed was due to the mold and inadequate medical services.”

Borden says she did not receive an inhaler for her asthma until July 13, almost 60 days after requesting one.

Plaintiff Vincent Grover was detained in the Workhouse from May 17 to August 4 on a $1,500 bond he could not pay. He claims involve officers using inmates for retaliation.

“Mr. Grover also observed officers arranging for detainees to attack each other on the officers’ behalf,” the complaint states. “Such attacks were most commonly orchestrated against detainees who had made a complaint against one of the officers. When an officer sought to exact retaliation, she would recruit a detainee from one unit and place him in the same cell as the complaining detainee that she wished to punish. The recruited detainee would then violently attack the complaining detainee in exchange for payment via commissary or some other reward.

“Mr. Grover recalls a specific incident in approximately May 2017 in which an officer slammed a detainee on his head and left the detainee seriously injured. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Grover stopped seeing the officer around the facility.

“When not arranging physical assaults, many of the officers were plainly apathetic to violence that broke out between detainees. On more than one occasion, he saw officers who witnessed a physical altercation unfolding in front of them and simply kept walking.”

Plaintiff John Roe said he saw an officer get bitten by a snake inside the jail.

The Workhouse housed 632 detainees in September, according to a report by the St. Louis Department of Public Safety’s Division of Corrections.

The class action is the latest of a litany of complaints against The Workhouse.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union said the jail was overcrowded and unsanitary, and that staff and officials allowed inmates to assault each other, ignored sexual harassment, and provided negligent medical care.

In 2012, guards were accused of setting up gladiator-style fights between inmates.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice said the jail had one of the highest rates of reported sexual abuse among the country’s jails, at 6.3 percent.

In July this year, police used pepper spray to disperse protesters who gathered outside the jail demanding that it be closed.

In addition to monetary damages, the plaintiffs seek declaratory relief stating that the jail’s conditions violated their constitutional rights; an injunction prohibiting defendant from continuing to engage in the illegal activities described in the complaint; and a $10,000 daily fine until the defendant can prove it is operating the jail in compliance with constitutional standards.

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