A federal lawsuit filed Monday accuses St. Louis correctional officers of putting jail detainees in a room and spraying so much Mace that they struggled to breathe.
Other inmates at the downtown City Justice Center were beaten or denied water as a form of punishment — sometimes for days — according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis on behalf of detainees Derrick Jones, Jerome Jones and Darnell Rusan. The suit names the city, Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass, City Justice Center Superintendent Adrian Barnes and several correctional officers. It seeks unspecified damages and a court order prohibiting unconstitutional treatment of detainees.
A phone call to Glass went unanswered. Mayor Tishaura Jones' spokesman, Nick Dunne, said officials were still reviewing the lawsuit.
The City Justice Center has been the site of two significant uprisings this year. Inmates in February and again in April were able to get out of their cells because of a faulty lock system that is still being replaced. Once out, they set fires and tossed chairs and file cabinets out windows. No one was seriously hurt.
Inmate advocates blamed conditions and treatment inside the jail, where many pre-trial inmate have been housed well over a year as efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus forced the courts to temporarily close. Detainees also complained about what they saw as a lack of protocols to protect them from COVID-19. City leaders said at the time that COVID-19 protocols were in place and there were very few cases of the virus inside the jail.
Jones, who was elected in April and has promised changes to St. Louis' criminal justice system, toured both city jails just days after taking office, along with U.S. Rep. Cori Bush and others. Jones and Bush, both Democrats, said they were appalled by conditions.
The lawsuit describes as “torture” the treatment of some detainees.
“I know that’s a strong word, but I really do think it approaches that," said Amy Breihan, an attorney for the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed the lawsuit along with three other legal organizations — ArchCity Defenders, St. Louis University's Legal Clinic, and Rights Behind Bars.
In December, Jerome Jones was sprayed in the face with an irritant and beaten by correctional officers without provocation, the suit contended. In February, the suit said he was placed in a small visitor's room as jail staff sprayed the room with large amounts of what the lawsuit says was Mace and says Jones was left shouting out for nearly a half-hour that he couldn't breathe.
The lawsuit said Rusan got similar treatment. It said jail staff commonly use Mace on detainees “who are restrained, confined inside a secure cell, or only passively resistant.”
The suit said jail staff “also have a practice of depriving detainees of water to their cells — sometimes for hours, sometimes for days on end — simply because detainees talk back, bang on their cell doors, or ‘get an attitude.’” The lawsuit said that in addition to denying drinking water, correctional officers, in response to the February uprising, turned off the water supply that allows toilets to flush for some cells.
Glass has long denied mistreatment of detainees. He announced his resignation earlier this month, effective June 1. While Jones said she did not force Glass to step aside, she blamed “failed leadership” for the plight of the City Justice Center and the city's other jail, known as the Workhouse, which has long been criticized for allegedly inhumane conditions.
Derrick Jones claimed in the lawsuit that in December he sought to be moved to a different cell because his cellmate exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever and lack of taste. A short time later, according to the lawsuit, several correctional officers sprayed Jones with Mace and kicked him.
The lawsuit said that with Jones crying out in pain, a supervisor came into the room, sprayed him with more Mace, and said, “Let him marinate.”