By Christopher Zoukis
Claiming a variety of problems at their former place of incarceration created “unspeakably hellish and inhumane conditions,” seven former inmates (two of whom shielded their identities with pseudonyms) of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as the “Workhouse,” filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on Nov. 13.
The ex-inmates claim long-known but ignored defects – including intolerable heat and cold, insect, snake, rodent and mold infestation, inadequate water, sanitation, medical care and ventilation – make being sentenced to the local jail a violation of their constitutional rights.
Filed by ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, the lawsuit seeks numerous forms of injunctive and damages relief. Specifically, it asks the federal court either to shut down the Workhouse, or impose a daily fine of $10,000 on the city until the most serious problems are remedied.
At a Nov. 13 press conference, two plaintiffs offered their observations on living conditions at the St. Louis Workhouse, amplifying allegations in the 41-page legal filing. One plaintiff, who spent eight months there for a probation violation, noted a dorm which housed 70 men usually had only one functioning toilet, shower or sink, and had no glass in some windows, leading to extreme heat and cold, and insect infestation. Another plaintiff, a woman who spent more than three weeks there due to a decade-old unpaid traffic ticket, complained of health problems due to pervasive black mold and being deprived of her blood-pressure medication.
The lawsuit also claims this summer’s heat wave, which saw record triple-digit temperatures, raised indoor spaces to 125 degrees, and was so extreme that male inmates competed to be sent to solitary — one of the facility’s few areas with air conditioning. The city temporarily brought in portable air conditioners, but did not devise a lasting solution, the lawsuit says. Overcrowding is another problem. Despite a federal court order from 1990 capping the Workhouse’s occupancy below 500 inmates, it has averaged over 700 inmates in recent months; as a result, some inmates are forced to sleep under beds or toilets.
Persistent failures in Workhouse facilities – such as non-functioning or overflowing toilets – also contribute to unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, as do open windows that allow entry of insects (the complaint cites cockroaches, bedbugs, ants and brown recluse spiders), along with birds, rats, snakes and squirrels, as frequent, if unwelcome, Workhouse guests. Rat droppings were so often found in Workhouse food, the complaint alleges that food staff was instructed to merely scrape them off before serving meals to inmates.
In addition, the lawsuit contends the facility is understaffed and that inadequately supervised staff sometimes fails to follow prison rules – for example, male staff entering unannounced into areas for female inmates — or wrongly retaliated against inmates. The lawsuit also notes some staff have even been accused of forcing inmates to engage in gladiator-style combat bouts, or encouraging inmates to attack those who have complained about staff actions or otherwise displeased staff members.
To make matters worse, the lawsuit notes, almost all of those detained at the Workhouse have not been convicted, but are merely awaiting trial, many because they cannot afford bail. All seven plaintiffs are African-American, as is about 85 percent of the Workhouse’s total population.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.