Lawsuit Against Missouri Jail Proceeds as Two Guards Plead Guilty
Attorneys representing current and former prisoners at the city workhouse in St. Louis, Missouri are moving forward with a federal lawsuit that alleges cruel and unusual punishment at the jail, including guards forcing prisoners to take part in “gladiator-style” fights.
On November 14, 2013, a motion to certify the case as a class-action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
The motion followed guilty pleas entered in August 2013 by two workhouse guards who had been accused of forcing prisoners to fight each other. The guards, Elvis M. Howard, 34, and Dexter Brinson, 46, pleaded guilty to charges of assault and obstruction of government operations. In addition, Howard pled guilty to burglary.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups have complained for years about abuses in St. Louis’ jail system, according to Daniel Brown, one of the attorneys representing the prisoners in the federal lawsuit.
As far back as 2009, the ACLU of Missouri had released a report critical of conditions at the workhouse, citing assaults and cover-ups, and in August 2012 the organization called for an independent committee to provide oversight at the jail.
“What was happening was the guards were actually taking inmates out of the cells, placing them in cells with other inmates and forcing them to fight each other,” Brown said.
Guards allegedly bet on the fights, one of which reportedly involved a prisoner on suicide watch. Prisoners were sometimes offered incentives to battle each other, such as extra food, or were threatened with violence if they did not participate.
Brown noted the guilty pleas entered by the two jail guards proved the validity of the lawsuit, which was filed in August 2012 against the guards, the City of St. Louis and the St. Louis Department of Corrections. He also predicted that the scope of the suit would widen.
“Now that the guards have pled guilty, it’s no longer an allegation – it’s a fact,” Brown said. “We believe these aren’t the only two guards who did this.”
Howard and Brinson were arrested after they were observed on jail security cameras letting prisoner Thaddeus Dumas into prisoner Derrick Rodgers’ cell to watch them fight. In court pleadings, Dumas claimed that he was repeatedly threatened by guards and ordered to assault other prisoners.
The lawsuit, which seeks $150 million, originally named seven plaintiffs but grew to include 45-50 current and former prisoners after the attorneys for Dumas and Rodgers spoke with Paul Sims, a lawyer representing other prisoners at the workhouse. Those prisoners reported similar incidents that resulted in serious injuries, including a broken jaw, and claimed they were denied medical care.
“We believe once we are successful, we will be able to make a change in the way business is being done at the workhouse,” said Sims, who became the fourth attorney on the legal team representing the prisoners.
“We are looking for reform in the justice system and workhouse,” attorney Ryan Smith stated. “We mean the court to dictate to the city how these institutions should be run because obviously they don’t have it within themselves to run the facilities in a proper manner.”
The lawsuit also seeks changes in the way prisoners file complaints at the workhouse; currently, grievances are filed with the guards themselves.
“The complainers are complaining to the violators,” Smith said.
Howard and Brinson both received suspended sentences and were placed on probation; Howard was sentenced to three-and-a-half years while Brinson received four years. The charges of assault in the third degree and obstruction of government operations were both misdemeanors, while Howard’s charge of burglary in the first degree was a felony.
The federal lawsuit alleging constitutional violations at the St. Louis workhouse remains pending. See: Rodgers v. Brinson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 4:12-cv-01482-JCH.
In a related matter, St. Louis officials agreed to pay $1,384.50 to the ACLU of Missouri to settle a lawsuit accusing the city of failing to comply with a public records request concerning conditions at the jail.
On September 27, 2011, the ACLU had requested “any and all records relating to [the] inmate grievance process” from the city’s corrections department. A month later the ACLU was informed that a reply to its Sunshine Law request would be forthcoming in a few days; however, another month passed without any documents or other reply, and the ACLU filed suit.
“Our request for public records was – it wasn’t refused, it was ignored,” said Tony Rothert, the ACLU’s legal director.
The request for documents was part of the ACLU’s investigation into complaints of neglect, abuse and poor conditions in the workhouse. At the time, the organization was working with then-Corrections Commissioner Gene Stubblefield to look into mismanagement and understaffing at the jail.
A series of escapes led to Stubblefield’s suspension in September 2011 and he was subsequently fired, ending the collaboration. In February 2014, Stubblefield filed a federal lawsuit against the city claiming that he was wrongly accused of misconduct and had been wrongfully terminated due to racial discrimination.
The ACLU received the documents it had requested shortly after filing suit. “After we filed the lawsuit, ... the city promptly owned up to its errors and gave up the records they had,” said Rothert. “They are to be commended for owning up to their failure to comply with the Sunshine Law.”
On June 27, 2012, a Missouri state court approved a consent judgment that required the city to pay $1,148.50 to the ACLU in attorney fees and $236 in costs in the public records case. “You only get attorney fees and costs if [the violation is] knowing and purposeful,” Rothert noted. See: ACLU of Eastern Missouri v. City of St. Louis, 22nd Judicial Circuit Court (MO), Case No. 1222-CC00423.
Additional sources: www.riverfronttimes.com, www.post-dispatch.com, www.stlamerican.com, www.stltoday.com
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Related legal cases
Rodgers v. Brinson
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 4:12-cv-01482-JCH|
ACLU of Eastern Missouri v. City of St. Louis
|Cite||22nd Judicial Circuit Court (MO), Case No. 1222-CC00423|