February 1, 2018
ArchCity Defenders and Khazaeli Wyrsch, LLC filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Eric Smith and Ali Qandah, two men from St. Louis whose basic liberties were repeatedly violated while in custody at St. Charles County Jail (SCCJ). Mr. Smith and Mr. Qandah’s claims stem from their experiences of excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, arbitrary use of solitary confinement, and deprivation of adequate medical care within SCCJ.
“While Mr. Smith and Mr. Qandah’s individual claims expose unlawful and egregious actions, we have reason to believe that they are centered within a broader context of abusive and unconstitutional practices within St. Charles County Jail,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “It is clear from Mr. Smith and Mr. Qandah’s experiences, and the history of claims against SCCJ, that direct and systemic change is needed if the jail is to be held to the standards of the law.”
In 2017, a judge sentenced Mr. Smith to 12 days of jail time because he could not afford to pay court fines and fees on a traffic violation. While in custody, a correctional officer slammed Mr. Smith’s head on a metal stool, nearly killing him. Mr. Smith was denied adequate medical care after the injury, and experienced an array of adverse health symptoms including pain, headaches, and nausea in the months following the incident. Despite attempts to get a timely MRI, Mr. Smith had to wait 3 months. The results revealed significant bleeding in the brain. Mr. Smith’s doctor informed him that this was a life-threatening injury requiring immediate surgery. Despite undergoing the surgery, Mr. Smith’s life has been permanently impacted by this injury.
“If I don’t have the money to pay, it’s time for me to go to jail? That’s not fair or legal, yet my whole life in St. Louis I’ve had to try to escape from jail time or fight to get out of jail just based off of not having the money. I was sentenced to do time in St. Charles County Jail because I couldn’t afford to pay this fine and I almost died,” said Eric Smith, a named plaintiff. “How many people have been jailed because they were poor and ended up injured, jobless, and scarred for life? I decided to stand up against St. Charles Jail because I didn’t want anyone to suffer the way I have.”
In 2014, Ali Qandah was held pre-trial in SCCJ because he could not afford cash bail. While in custody, Mr. Qandah was placed in solitary confinement without due process and caged for 23 hours a day for several months until his court date. Mr. Qandah was repeatedly harassed for his ethnic and religious identity as an Arab-American and Muslim man. While caged in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, a correctional officer let an inmate into Mr. Qandah’s small cell to attack him. The solitary confinement, verbal assaults, and physical attack caused Mr. Qandah physical and psychological injuries that still haunt him today.
“Solitary confinement is like death, but you’re still breathing,” said Ali Qandah, a named plaintiff. “Since my release, I tend to panic when I’m confined in small rooms for long periods of time, even if I’m the bathroom. It has affected my relationship with my fiancée, I can’t find a job that leads to a good career or great pay because I’m very paranoid. I’m always constantly looking over my shoulders. This is a daily nightmare I never expected to have, and St. Charles needs to be held accountable,” said Mr. Qandah.
“The psychological and physical violence perpetrated against Mr. Smith and Mr. Qandah has deeply traumatized and permanently devastated their lives. While no amount of money could ever repair the damage that St. Charles County Jail has caused, this lawsuit is a step towards reform and accountability,” said Jim Wyrsch, of Khazaeli Wyrsch, LLC, co-counsel partners representing the plaintiffs.
Alleging violations of the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, Mr. Smith and Mr. Qandah’s lawsuit adds to the litany of individual cases brought against SCCJ in the past five years. In August of 2017, St. Charles County reached a settlement with the family of Robert Breeding, a young man who died in SCCJ custody in 2013.
Z. Gorley, Communications Director at ArchCity Defenders