March 15, 2022
A federal class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of all individuals detained at the St. Louis City Justice Center (CJC), who have subjected to or are at risk of being exposed to the violent and systemic use of chemical agents and water shut-offs employed by correctional officers arbitrarily, punitively, and in response to reasonable and non-violent detainee concerns. The lawsuit comes on the heels of a civil rights lawsuit filed in May 2021 and the motion asks for the suit to move forward as a class action. The MacArthur Justice Center, ArchCity Defenders, Rights Behind Bars, and the Saint Louis University School of Law Clinics are representing the plaintiffs.
To view first hand accounts which are in the form of declarations filed with the amended complaint and motion for class certification, click here.
“CJC detainees unfortunately share the common experience of either being subject to, or at risk of being subject to, the same brutal tactics by Correctional Officers, including being trapped in cells filled with dangerous chemical agents that burn and make breathing painful,” said Shubra Ohri, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “These practices are all the more dangerous when the detainee is asthmatic, as so many CJC detainees are. This kind of torture is longstanding and ongoing, despite detainee protests and the original civil rights lawsuit filed last year.”
Marrell Withers, who the lawsuit seeks to add as a plaintiff, adds: “I want to file on behalf of myself and the rest of the people here who have had to endure the excessive force. We are all dealing with other stuff, but on top of that we’ve been treated unfairly and inhumanely here. The officers can do what they want to do to us. I’m fearful of the staff and their retaliatory actions. I have been through this for years. Constant mistreatment either makes a person stand up or break.”
The suit includes firsthand accounts of detainees who described being restrained, handcuffed or in their cell, and then suddenly without warning or reason they are assaulted with chemical agents, leaving them in agony and distress. They also describe a common practice of being deprived of access to water when CJC staff punitively shut off the water to their cells — sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, and often immediately after being exposed to chemical agents, when access to water is vitally important.
“We continue to hear overwhelming stories of the same types of grievous mistreatment at CJC from people directly impacted,” said Maureen Hanlon, staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders. “These stories are corroborated by the City’s own records – use of force reports that the City only produced after a Sunshine lawsuit was filed. We believe class wide injunctive relief is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of everyone detained.”
In one account, a detainee who went nine months in his cell without potable water, told of being sprayed, without provocation, by a CJC officer. “Without warning or reason, Lt. Richard deployed OC spray through the chuckhole of my cell. The door was closed. Lt. Richard didn’t ask me to do anything before using the OC spray. They left me in the cell for about 20 minutes with the door closed. I was worried because I have asthma and had to sit in the chemical spray.”
The motion includes the request for a subclass of all people detained at CJC who have disabilities that make them particularly susceptible to serious harm from the use of chemical agents.
In another firsthand account, when refused to be transferred to a COVID-positive wing after testing negative, correctional officers at CJC handcuffed an individual and maced him. He states, “I was scared, so I got up and faced the wall. I was not physically resisting. I told Captain Willis and CO Jones I had asthma and begged them not to mace me. CO Jones then maced me in the face, while I was facing the wall and handcuffed”.
Adding insult to injury, plaintiffs reported being denied access to the jail’s “grievance process” and also described the process as unresponsive and inaccessible. Another individual spoke out about being maced several times and repeatedly denied access to a shower for weeks when he filed a complaint. “I complained. I tried to file out an IRR, but it never seemed to get out. I’ve seen [corrections officers] tear up IRRs on multiple occasions.”
From the inexplicable and abusive macing, the lack of medical attention and treatment, the deprivation of water, and concerns about lack of accountability, the individuals who have been detained in CJC illuminate a pattern of violence that they and others have survived.
Since late December, people detained at CJC have organized at least four protests stemming from a pervasive culture of inhumane conditions, abuse, and lack of COVID-19 safety protocols. Mr. Withers said “I want the people in charge of the City to know they need to better train their staff, and the staff has to learn how to deal with people who are incarcerated. Not everyone in here can take the mistreatment. Before the water boils over it’s got to heat up. If the staff were better trained and treated us better, we wouldn’t have the same kinds of problems.” The civil rights lawsuit was filed in May 2021.
Jessey Neves, MacArthur Justice Center
Z Gorley, ArchCity Defenders