The city of Ferguson, Mo., and another northern St. Louis suburb have been accused of maintaining "grotesque" jail conditions for motorists locked up because they couldn't pay fines for minor legal infractions, according to two federal class-action lawsuits.
The lawsuits against Ferguson and the city of Jennings describe conditions in which crowded cells are smeared with mucus, blood and fecal matter and inmates are denied basic hygiene supplies and medical care.
Some residents spend “three, four, five” weeks in the jails, not to serve a criminal sentence but because they can't afford to pay a fine to get out, said Brendan D. Roediger of the St. Louis University School of Law.
“They’re not sitting [in jail] because they’ve been sentenced to jail for that long,” Roediger told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re sitting because they can’t pay to get out.”
On Monday, Ferguson’s mayor, James Knowles III, denied the “disturbing” claims made in the suits, which were filed Sunday, saying they were “not based on objective facts.”
“The city disputes any contention that individuals in any specific economic group were targeted for unfair treatment, that jail detainees are abused in any way, that persons are routinely confined in custody longer than three consecutive days, or that the physical conditions in the jail were unsanitary or unconstitutionally improper,” the city said in a statement.
City officials in Jennings, population 14,756, which neighbors Ferguson, population 21,111, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
St. Louis County's municipal courts gained unexpected prominence last year after residents blamed the courts as one of the roots of the racial unrest that erupted after the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
Many residents described experiencing constant scrutiny and ticketing by police for minor traffic offenses as they traveled through northern St. Louis County's dense quilt of small suburbs, whose municipal budgets rely heavily on the fines that come as a result.
Opponents of the ticketing practice say the system preys on poor residents who can't pay the disproportionate number of fines levied against them. In the worst-case scenarios, they said, poor but upstanding citizens become trapped in a cycle of poverty and jail time because they cannot pay their fines, which can result in warrants for their arrest.
One of the plaintiffs, Tonya DeBerry, 52, of Jennings, told The Times she had been jailed repeatedly in Jennings and Ferguson for not paying fines.
In the Jennings jail, where she was crammed together in a cell with other women, she said the walls were moldy and the water coming from a sink attached to a toilet “smelled like sewage.”
The Ferguson jail was “no better,” she said, adding that in one of her longest stays, for nine days, she lost 20 pounds because jail officials offered so little food to eat. But the worst part, DeBerry told The Times, wasn’t the conditions.
“The jails are only full of black people. That’s what sticks out to me,” DeBerry said. “They are sticking these high fines on poor black people, and they cannot pay, and jailing them like that - they are sticking people in these jails who don’t even have jobs ... it’s just horrible.”
The two class-action lawsuits were brought by the nonprofit advocacy organizations Equal Justice Under Law and ArchCity Defenders and by attorneys with the St. Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics. The lawsuits contend that the jail conditions and jailing for failure to pay fines violate numerous constitutional rights.
ArchCity Defenders had known about the complaints over St. Louis County’s municipal courts’ fines and police citations, but the group started to learn about jail conditions after Brown was shot, said Thomas Harvey, the group’s executive director.
“We started talking to [residents] about the nature of the jails, and they would casually mention things that were out of a 17th century novel,” Harvey said. “It was really horrifying that this is what they were subjected to as a condition of being poor.... There’s not a lot of white people sitting in those jails. All our plaintiffs are African Americans.”
Attorneys handling the case encountered obstacles investigating the jails because it was difficult to obtain records from city officials and ascertain specific dates from inmates.
“It’s such a part of the culture of St. Louis County to spend time in jail if you’re poor and black; it’s hard for them to say the dates of when they’re locked in there,” Harvey said.
The lawsuits detail a system described as a "modern debtors' prison scheme" in which residents are held against their will in poor conditions without proper access to representation.
The complaints also describe a system in which inmates negotiate their fines with the courts and jail guards in order to secure their release – only to discover, after posting bond, that they would remain in jail on a separate warrant for a minor infraction.
The Jennings jail, for instance, serves as a jail for neighboring municipalities, and inmates sometimes don’t know which city is legally holding them in custody, attorneys said.
“People end up running from city to city to figure out what city needs to be paid,” Roediger said.
In one particularly expansive paragraph, one of the lawsuits describes "Dickensian" conditions for inmates at the Ferguson city jail:
"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. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave."
Ferguson city officials said Police Chief Tom Jackson mandated in 2010 that the jail be cleaned on a daily basis and that inmates have access to a toilet, washbasin, drinking water and a shower.
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