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St. Louis Lockups Violate Constitutional Rights, ACLU Asserts

A troubling investigative report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) has exposed a culture of abuse, corruption and cover-ups at the City Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis (CJC/MSI).

The most damning evidence came from six current and former guards whose identities were not revealed “because of the atmosphere of intimidation and retaliation” at the two jails. The guards, including a Captain and a longtime, nationally-certified training officer, are referred to as CO1 through CO6 in the report, which was released in March 2009 following a two-year investigation.

“The accounts and descriptions of conditions provided” by guards and prisoners at the jails “lead to the conclusion that there is endemic abuse ... and a pattern of policy violations at the CJC/MSI,” the ACLU-EM found. “Without an intervention there is no reason to think that any of these conditions are going to change.”

Culture of Abuse, Corruption & Cover-Ups

The ACLU-EM described a profoundly broken, out-of-control system where guards routinely subject prisoners to vicious, unwarranted beatings and other abuse. The report also found elaborate cover-up schemes. While the abuse is clearly systemic, one particular clique of high-ranking guards was cited as the most ruthless. Captain Irene Mitchell, Lt. Sydney Turner, Lt. Bettye Love and Lt. Willie McMorris comprised a rogue gang that “beats people up, covers it up and [] will get you fired,” said CO2.

Captain Mitchell repeatedly and brutally beat Peggy Jones, a young prisoner at MSI, for several weeks in 2007 according to CO2, who witnessed Mitchell enter Jones’ cell and savagely attack her. Mitchell “beat this child until it was pathetic” and she cried and pleaded for the abuse to stop, recalled the guard. “I got tired of looking at it.”

On another occasion, a prisoner’s questions prompted Mitchell to order guards to “crack their motherfucking heads open.” Fifteen guards then entered the dorm and ruthlessly and indiscriminately beat prisoners in the head and body with billy clubs, and punched and kicked them. “Captain Mitchell has authorized COs to beat a small inmate – beat him!” said CO2. “They beat him down!”

“Head cracking” and “beat downs” were apparently common at the CJC/MSI, the ACLU-EM reported. Jail guard Dirrell Alexander choked and slammed a handcuffed prisoner over a stairwell, alleged CO2. Another guard, Paul Tillery, took a prisoner to an isolated area and “busted his head” with a soap dispenser, according to CO3. On February 13, 2006, CO1 found prisoner Samuel Aye handcuffed and bleeding. An investigation revealed that Lt. Victor Cooper had failed to report his use of force and did not seek medical attention for Aye.

CJC prisoner Cedric Cross was brutally beaten by guards and denied medical attention. When he was released on March 29, 2007, he was unable to walk. Upon arrival at a hospital he required emergency surgery to treat internal bleeding from what doctors described as blunt force injuries, according to the ACLU-EM report.

CO3 witnessed Lt. McMorris bang a handcuffed prisoner’s head into some bars. “Nothing happened to the Lieutenant and to cover that Lieutenant’s ass, they went to the extent of filing charges on that guy, saying that he assaulted the officer,” said CO3.

On February 15, 2007, a 16-year-old, 5’5” 130 lb. detainee joked about a guard.
McMorris responded by ordering several guards to enter the juvenile’s cell and stomp and punch him in the face and body, according to COs 1 and 2. The prisoner suffered a badly bruised and lacerated eye and bruising on his torso, which CO1 photographed. No action was taken against the guards who carried out the beating. Rather, administrators focused on CO1, questioning why he had taken pictures of the injuries.

Lt. Sydney Turner ordered the guards who assaulted the juvenile not to write individual incident reports. The day after the assault, Lt. Turner, who witnessed the beating, wrote a report for each guard to sign as though they’d written them themselves. Turner omitted and changed facts in the reports, the ACLU-EM found. In June 2008, the juvenile’s family reported that guards were allowing prisoners to enter his cell and beat him almost nightly.

CO5 witnessed Lt. Turner repeatedly abuse and assault Crystal Randle, a suicidal prisoner at MSI. Turner ordered Randle to spend up to 15 days nude in her cell. Medical staff told guards to at least give her a gown, but each time Turner saw it she ordered Randle stripped naked again.

On April 19, 2008, Lts. Turner and Love ordered guards to initiate three cell extraction/use of force incidents against Randle, at 7:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 10:50 a.m. The first two incidents were not videotaped. During the second cell extraction, Love ordered McMorris and two other male guards to put Randle in a restraint chair, but no use of force reports were written. During the third incident, Randle threatened suicide.

Lt. Love and a Correctional Medical Services (CMS) mental health employee responded. Guards told them Randle had torn her suicide gown, made a noose, tied it around her neck and threatened to hang herself. Love ordered Randle placed in a restraint chair. Lt. McMorris and two guards entered Randle’s cell and restrained her. Once she was put in the chair, “it was simply turned toward the open cell door, clearly exposing” Randle’s nudity, before a medical gown was placed over her two minutes later, according to the ACLU-EM. The exposure “was both prolonged and unnecessary,” said CO5.

Reward/Retaliation Dynamic

Major Russell Brown, Chief of Security at MSI, determined that jail staff had committed nine policy violations in the Randle incident. When he submitted his report to his supervisors, then-Acting Deputy Superintendent Reginald Moore and Superintendent Eugene Stubblefield, however, the report was returned to him for revision because it was “too detailed,” according to CO5. “Lt. Turner’s name and involvement appeared ... in too much detail,” Moore and Stubblefield concluded. Brown then revised his report. “While Lt. Turner’s role is reportedly reduced in it, and the role of Bettye Love is amplified, it is still a damning assessment of ... Randle’s treatment,” the ACLU-EM concluded. Yet “neither Lt. Love nor anyone else has been disciplined regarding ... Randle.”

Moore and Stubblefield shielded Lt. Turner and other guards from repercussions for policy violations, according to CO4, a Captain. Stubblefield reportedly authorized lower-ranking guards “to issue directives to their superiors,” said CO4, who “believes that this authority was undoubtedly a result of their willingness to cover [up] the corruption and the abuses that ... Stubblefield and others have allowed to exist in the CJC/MSI,” the ACLU-EM stated. This “is an example of the reward and retaliation ethic that defines the culture inside CJC/MSI.”

Guards “who won’t embrace the abusive culture that has been entrenched” at the jails “are being forced out or penalized for challenging its supporters,” said CO4. Immediately after CO4 “wrote up Lt. Turner for leaving female inmates in a medical unit unsupervised,” CO4’s salary was cut by three percent. Such retaliation is a common theme throughout the ACLU-EM report.

“COs can’t say anything” about abuse of prisoners “because of retaliation from superiors,” added CO3. “I’ve seen them mess with them, find things to write them up about ... suspend them and try to demote them.” CO3 reported that “a CO [who] was in her sixties was put on one of the worst dorms there” because she had protested prisoner abuse. “A lot of people won’t speak up.”

Anyone advocating policy compliance is fired by Captain Mitchell, said CO2. Yet “those COs who adapt themselves to” the “culture of abuse and embrace the systemic cover-up ... are advantaged with promotions or other favors from administrators,” CO2 stated. “Cooperative COs were given days off or ... alerts prior to ‘random’ drug testing,” for example.

Sex, Drugs and Big Macs

The cover-up culture at the CJC/MSI extends far beyond physical assaults. “Female COs go after young inmates (sexually), and male COs go after female inmates with coercion,” said CO2. “One CO had been written up for sexual misconduct seven or eight times, but nothing had been done about him beyond the write ups.” COs 1 and 5 agreed, noting that in February 2009 a male guard was charged with repeated sexual abuse of a female prisoner, but “several more officers were involved in the wrongdoing.”

CO2 discussed guard involvement in smuggling contraband that included illicit drugs, according to the ACLU-EM report, saying several guards gave crack cocaine to prisoners. “Some COs have been suspended multiple times for drug use and ‘some of them were sent for treatment by the city but they came back doing the same thing,’” stated CO2. “You know who they are.... Nothing is done about it.”

CO3 said prisoners are “steadily getting cigarettes and drugs. Sometimes it smells like a lounge. ... Down there, you have well known [drug] mules. ... Everybody pretty much knows who the mules are but there is so much favoritism [and] subjective discipline.” CO3 witnessed guards smuggling in drugs, and noted that one time a large quantity of marijuana and black tar heroin was found but “there was no investigation or official action ... and ‘no one was reprimanded.’”

Guards also allow or order prisoners to assault other prisoners, according to CO2. One jail guard “was merely suspended for getting McDonald’s food as a reward for inmates who assaulted another inmate for him,” CO2 stated. CO3 concurred, saying guards “coerce inmates into attacking or ‘jumping on’ other inmates,” according to the ACLU-EM report.
“It goes on a lot and when I say ‘jump on,’ most of the time it’s pretty bad,” said CO3.
“There was a situation where nine guys jumped on one guy” and the victim claimed a guard had ordered the assault. CO3 mentioned another incident where “a young white guy said a CO was going to have him jumped on and checked himself out of the dorm because he feared the CO and feared for his safety.”

Further, even when CJC/MSI guards don’t order prisoner assaults, they often don’t intervene when they occur. Prisoners “get jumped and a CO will stand there and look,” CO3 observed. “A guy was stabbed up because no one was watching. The guard was mad with him and wouldn’t watch.”

Medical Indifference and Incompetence

The ACLU-EM also found systemic, callous indifference and incompetence by CMS medical staff at the jails. COs 2 and 3 reported that a prisoner who struck his head on something said “I need to go to medical,” and fell down. Guards delayed taking him to get treatment because they believed he was faking. When medical staff finally saw him, they provided only a cursory “evaluation,” gave him some water and told him to walk back to his cell. “By the time he got to his bunk, he died,” said CO2. Another prisoner with a head injury lost his hearing after he was denied treatment.

“Nurses are generally slow to respond to inmates who are sick or injured,” CO2 stated. For example, CO2 observed “a nurse’s slow response to an inmate who complained that he didn’t feel well and couldn’t get up. The inmate went into a seizure and the nurse just let him sleep it off. ‘That kind of thing happens all the time.’”

Another “sadistic practice” of CMS medical staff was cited by the ACLU-EM. “Required medicine is dispensed at a set time. CO2 states that if an inmate cannot physically make it to the distribution point at the correct time, they are not given their medicine. This is true even for heart patients. It doesn’t matter if the inmate is slow to move due to infirmity or feebleness. An inmate asking for his medicine after struggling to get up and arriving at his door once the medical staff has passed ... is told, ‘No, you didn’t make it.’”

In April 2008, a 29-year-old jail prisoner was repeatedly vomiting. “Instead of taking him to medical they threw him in another holding cell all by himself – after he kept throwing up. Nobody checked on him,” said CO3. By the time he was discovered dead in his cell rigor mortis had set in, according to the ACLU-EM report.

Similarly, in January 2008, a 19-year-old prisoner, Joshua Turner, committed suicide. “After it had been determined that he was a risk to himself,” Turner was housed in general population instead of a medical observation cell. Nobody checked on him for three days. Following Turner’s death, guard Sylvester McMillan mockingly said, “‘What suicide? That’s a figment of your imagination,’ when the subject of Turner’s death came up,” said CO2.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of medical neglect was a complaint letter submitted by St. Louis Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Christine Seper. On April 11, 2007, LaVonda Kimble, a 30-year-old single mother, was arrested and detained at the CJC on a simple traffic warrant. Her boyfriend posted bond but it was sent to the wrong jail, delaying her release with fatal results.

Kimble suffered an asthma attack while in custody that resulted in Seper and EMT Chastity Girolami being called to treat her. Girolami said “that firefighters who arrived ahead of the EMTs told her that when they got there, CJC staff was trying to perform CPR by compressing Kimble’s stomach instead of her chest,” the ACLU-EM reported. When medics asked a jail nurse “if she had used an automatic defibrillator to try to restore Kimble’s heartbeat, ‘She just looked at us and asked us what we were talking about.’ The medical care was ‘substandard at best,’” Girolami wrote.

CJC guards also delayed letting the EMTs into the facility, and distracted and interfered with them. “The medics twice asked the CO to ‘back off,’” but “she kept persisting and finally my partner informed the staff that this patient was in cardiac arrest and basically dying and they would have to wait,’” said Girolami. “The staff was surprised at this. They didn’t know the patient was in cardiac arrest.”

Kimble died at a hospital an hour later. “The initial delay was detrimental to the patient’s outcome,” Girolami noted. Kimble’s family later filed a lawsuit against CMS. “People don’t generally die of an asthma attack when they go to the hospital,” said John Scott Wallach, an attorney representing the family. “I fully believe our evidence will show if she was treated properly, she would have been fine.”

Jail staff handled the Kimble incident as per their usual practice: they falsified reports. “Those official CJC records show LaVonda Kimble was given Albuterol to ease her breathing three separate times while she was in the CJC,” the ACLU-EM stated. However, the “medical examiner ran a special toxicology test specifically looking for the presence of Albuterol in Kimble’s body during an autopsy and found none, a finding inconsistent with the CJC records showing three doses.”

Not surprisingly, an internal investigation by jail officials found “no evidence that the Division of Corrections violated any policies or procedures.” The wrongful death suit filed by Kimble’s estate is scheduled to go to trial on January 31, 2011. See: Davis v. Correctional Medical Services, 22nd Judicial Circuit Court (St. Louis, MO), Case No. 0822-CC09706.

Inhumane Conditions

Overcrowding is a persistent problem at the CJC/MSI, according to COs 1 and 5. It “is so severe that inmates are regularly forced to sleep under beds and toilets,” said CO1. “Mats and steel inside the facility are not regularly sanitized; vomit and human feces are sometimes found ... where inmates are housed,” COs 1 and 2 reported.

“In some cells there would be inmates [who] were sick or injured who had been left alone in that condition, and because of their sickness or injury they were not mobile enough to use the toilet without assistance,” an unnamed prisoner stated. He witnessed other prisoners sleeping “in their own feces and urine for days and were refused help by COs.”
One guard told a prisoner, “I’m not touching you – you need to ask somebody else ... to help you get cleaned up ... I’m not cleaning up anything in there,” according to the ACLU-EM.

“Staph infection is everywhere,” said CO2, noting that filth and disease are a major issue at the jails. CO1 agreed, saying “staph infection is an ever-present health risk ... and outbreaks of staph and other communicable diseases have been an ongoing problem.” One unidentified prisoner reported seeing “inmates [who] have had fingers, toes, and legs amputated as a result of getting staph in that place.”

The ACLU-EM report found that “staph infection has been identified as a serious problem in the CJC/MSI. It is also a public health risk,” because released prisoners return to the community. “With them comes the ever-increasing potential for the spread of this disease in the general population. Particular strains of staph infection can be life threatening.”

Substandard Training

CO6, a longtime guard and former CJC/MSI training supervisor certified by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), had helped write some of the jails’ policies, according to the ACLU-EM report. CO6 stated the obvious, insisting “that training for CJC/MSI personnel is and has been dangerously substandard for years.”

Many jail employees have not “been trained properly in five years on direct supervision, interpersonal communication skills, firearms, first aid and CPR,” CO6 said. “There has been no training beyond just passing out written policy to staff and leaving them with it.” CO6 “got out of training because it was a neglected aspect of the necessary functions of CJC/MSI – it became sub par,” the report states. The training that guards receive “is not training as required by the U.S. Justice Department or the NIC.”

Superintendent Stubblefield ignored CO6’s complaints that jail staff were undertrained and that there were “no accurate records of testing proficiency,” the ACLU-EM said. “Policy violations and the resulting rights violations they produce ... are standard operating procedure at CJC/MSI,” CO6 concluded.

“It’s Just Not Right”

“Given the nature of the environment at the CJC/MSI it is remarkable that any information was provided at all” for the report, and “this preliminary investigation most likely presents a significantly lesser part of the whole picture of abuse inside the walls of the CJC/MSI,” the ACLU-EM wrote.

“It’s just not right, these people are human beings,” offered all but one of the six current and former guards who came forward to describe abuses and deficiencies at the St. Louis jails. Yet local authorities have failed to intervene. Besides, an internal audit would serve no useful purpose “given the culture of threats and retaliation which would most likely keep information from surfacing,” the ACLU-EM noted.

Suggesting action by “the United States Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and others, to force compliance with the Constitution,” the ACLU-EM observed that “[s]ome combination of independent investigation, oversight, litigation, and advocacy must compel the reforms required” at the CJC/MSI.

St. Louis officials largely rejected the ACLU-EM’s report, and Superintendant Stubblefield was quoted as saying it was “not a credible document.” The reliance on anonymous sources was used to downplay the report despite fears of retaliation by jail staff who came forward and the fact that one of the sources, CO1, later revealed himself to be former guard Darius Young.

While it would be easy to attribute the problems reported at the jails to prisoners’ rights advocates and disgruntled employees, some validation of the ACLU-EM report came with the arrests of three jail guards in June 2009. Guards James Lamont Moore, Peggy Lynn “Pumpkin” O’Neal and Marilyn Denise “Peaches” Brown were charged with smuggling heroin into the CJC – a problem that the ACLU-EM had specifically cited.

The trio of guards eventually pleaded guilty. James was sentenced in October 2009 and received a 24-month prison term and two years on supervised release, while O’Neal and Brown were sentenced in May 2010 – O’Neal to 30 months in prison and 2 years on supervised release, and Brown to 3 years’ probation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith criticized the ACLU-EM for issuing its report on abuses at the CJC/MSI without first contacting law enforcement authorities, saying the organization had jeopardized the joint police/federal undercover operation that resulted in the arrests. ACLU-EM program associate Reditt Hudson said they were more concerned about the safety of prisoners than the sting operation.

Indeed, if the U.S. Attorney’s Office was serious about addressing systemic problems at St. Louis jails, it would investigate the brutality, cover-ups, poor medical care, retaliation and other abuses cited in the ACLU-EM report rather than prosecute a handful of guards for smuggling drugs. Apparently, though, federal prosecutors have other priorities.

Deficient Medical Care Continues

Medical care at the CJC/MSI apparently has not improved since the ACLU-EM report was issued. Prisoner Courtland Lucas, 31, collapsed and died due to heart failure on May 25, 2009, while jail prisoner Vanessa Evans, 37, died in November 2010 after she had trouble breathing. Evans had a history of asthma, and her family claimed jail staff did not provide adequate treatment.

On November 18, 2010 the ACLU-EM filed suit in federal court on behalf of an HIV-positive prisoner, identified only as John Doe. According to the complaint, which names Superintendent Stubblefield, other jail staff and CMS as defendants, Doe was held at both the CJC and MSI. When he arrived at the jail in March 2010 he informed staff about his HIV status and told them he needed his prescribed medications. Although his doctor faxed his records to the jail, Doe did not receive his medication.

On his eleventh day in custody he was given Tylenol; he did not get his HIV medication until 17 days after his arrival at the jail. His treatment was sporadic during the rest of his incarceration and he sometimes did not receive his medication. While deputy city counselor Nancy Kistler refuted the claims in the lawsuit and said Doe had “received adequate medical care consistent with his constitutional rights,” ACLU-EM legal director Tony Rothert called the deficient medical care at the jail “inexcusable.” See: Doe v. City of St. Louis, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 4:10-cv-02158-JCH.

Sources: “Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers,” ACLU of Eastern Missouri (2009); St. Louis American; St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Davis v. Correctional Medical Services

Doe v. City of St. Louis