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ArchCity Defenders sues over conditions at St. Louis’ medium security jail

The majority of people housed at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis do not have air conditioning. (July 19, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The city of St. Louis is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit over conditions at the Medium Security Institution.

Updated November 13 at 3:30 p.m. with comments from attorneys and the city — A local legal nonprofit has sued the city of St. Louis, saying conditions at the Medium Security Institution violate the rights of inmates.

ArchCity Defenders filed the federal lawsuit Monday on behalf of seven inmates who spent time at the jail. The suit accuses the city of ignoring unsanitary conditions that led to a variety of health problems, and providing inadequate medical care. Guards are also accused of goading inmates into fights, and sexually harassing female inmates.

“The City of St. Louis daily condemns hundreds of presumptively innocent people to suffer in unspeakably hellish and inhumane conditions inside of its Medium Security Institution (MSI),” attorneys for ArchCity wrote in the lawsuit. “These conditions not only violate the United States Constitution, but also run afoul of the most basic standards of human decency. So squalid are the conditions that persist at MSI that local residents have adopted a name for the jail that borrows from the long-abolished Victorian institution for the most impoverished and destitute: the Workhouse.”

ArchCity is asking a federal judge to order St. Louis to close MSI, or require the city to pay a $10,000 fine for each day the city does not install air conditioning units or take care of mold problems.

The city's corrections commissioner would not comment on the lawsuit, but defended the conditions at the jail.

"The jail is clean," said commissioner Dale Glass. "There's no infestations, no mold, and the inmates are treated with respect. People get to say whatever they want to say, but if you go look at the health department inspections, the fact that we're nationally accredited, all the programs that we run to help inmates, I would think that would outweigh comments that anyone would say."

The vast majority of inmates housed at MSI have not been convicted of any crime. That includes Diedre Wortham, a 46-year-old woman who spent 22 days there this summer.

“They made me feel like I was an animal — like I was worthless,” Wortham said.

Wortham said she saw roaches in her cell on a daily basis, and was exposed to mold. She also said she did not receive needed blood pressure medication for more than a week.

“I just prayed every day, and kept my faith high with God, because I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the Workhouse alive,” she said.

Ongoing pattern of neglect

This is not the first time the city has faced a federal lawsuit over conditions in its jails. Inmates sued in 1974, alleging that the old jail at the corner of 14th and Clark was overcrowded. The case was dismissed in 2000 when the city built the Criminal Justice Center downtown and closed the old facility.

In 2009, the ACLU of Missouri released an investigation of conditions at the jail. City officials at the time dismissed the report because it was based on interviews with anonymous inmates and guards. Five of the seven inmates in the ArchCity suit are named, though two are using pseudonyms “due to fear of retaliation, reputational harm, and social stigma.”

“I think what that really reflects is the city’s attitude toward the people who are held in those facilities,” said Blake Strode, the impact litigation manager for ArchCity. “The consistent strand throughout is that the city is not responsive to inhumane and abusive and unsanitary conditions in local correctional facilities.”

It’s an issue of race and class, said Jamala Rogers, an organizer with the Organization for Black Struggle.

“If it were young middle class white people who were going into that facility, I doubt we would be having the conversation,” she said. “That’s why our fight gets stronger and stronger.”

MSI became the scene of several days of protests this summer as temperatures climbed above 100 degrees. Most parts of the jail do not have air conditioning, and exposure to excessive heat is part of the ArchCity lawsuit.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann


Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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