New Federal Lawsuit Details Culture of Water Deprivation and Excessive Macing at City Justice Center
In the same jail that’s been the source of recent uprisings and public scrutiny, three men detained pretrial are filing a lawsuit alleging their 14th amendment rights have been routinely violated. The lawsuit attests to a pervasive culture of abuse at the jail.
Today in federal court, Derrick Jones, Jerome Jones, and Darnell Rusan filed a lawsuit alleging the City of St. Louis and the City Justice Center (CJC) staff violated their constitutional rights by indiscriminately and excessively macing them, and depriving them of water to their cells. The suit details individual abuses that each man survived, and shows how these cruel and inhumane practices are part of larger, widespread custom within the jail. ArchCity Defenders, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Rights Behind Bars, and the Saint Louis University School of Law Clinics are representing the men in this case against several St. Louis City employees.
“It’s been hard, I’ve been in a cell for 23 hours a day. In the one hour a day I get out, I have to shower, I have to make all of my calls, it’s crazy. I’ve been in here for 6 months. It feels crazy to be without my family. My daughter has been born since I was jailed, and I can’t even hold her yet,” said Derrick Jones, a plaintiff in the case. “I’m tired. I want to speak up and say something. I want to change the future so it doesn’t have to happen to someone else. I think that this is the beginning of something big that has been going on for years but this is the beginning of people finally being heard.”
In December 2020, Derrick Jones was unnecessarily maced after requesting to move to a different cell because his cellmate was demonstrating signs of COVID-19. Mr. Jones was then taken to the ground, kicked, handcuffed, and maced again. Despite asking for help, a lieutenant allegedly said, “[l]et him marinate.” Mr. Jones later saw a medical staff member who washed his eyes, but was taken to solitary for eight days, and during that time he was denied a shower and change of clothes, despite a jail policy requiring staff to provide clean clothes to detainees after they have been maced.
A link to the complaint is available here.
“I had a corrections officer tell me ‘we will kill your ass in here.’ Somebody has to do something,” said Darnell Rusan, another plaintiff. “People are going to do what you let them do and I hope that this lawsuit is an attempt to stop that.”
Darnell Rusan was excessively maced two times, first in December 2020 and then in February 2021. In December, correctional officers (COs) maced him, removed him from the shower, handcuffed him, and slammed his head into an elevator wall. While he was in the medical unit, a correctional officer started hitting and choking Mr. Rusan said to him, “we’ll kill your little ass in here.” After that, he was choked again, and experienced blurred vision and dizziness. He was then forced into a room that COs abundantly sprayed mace into, and left there for nine hours. More recently, in February, Mr. Rusan and others were subjected to nude body cavity searches, when he was blasted with an immense amount of mace and left in the same room for four hours. The lawsuit details numerous other incidents where jail staff used excessive mace without warning or cause, including macing people who were physically restrained, and macing into locked cells through chuckholes in the cell doors.
“Detainees at the jail have voiced concerns about conditions there for months. They detailed abuses by staff and the deprivation of basic necessities. And the City ignored or dismissed those claims,” said Amy Breihan, MacArthur Justice Center Co-Director. “Sadly, this lawsuit is necessary to ensure that people are not tortured at the CJC.”
Jerome Jones, the third plaintiff, was detained over two years at CJC before he was ultimately acquitted at trial. After questioning why he had to move cells, Mr. Jones was taken – in handcuffs – and locked in a visiting booth. Once he was in the room, a lieutenant asked Jerome if he was going to move cells. Mr. Jones responded, “No,” and they sprayed an excessive amount of mace into the visiting booth until it filled the room, leaving him in there for over 25 minutes before he was put back in a cell without running water.
“Detainees have been crying out for months about the abusive treatment that some correctional officers or supervisors inflict on them. The City has a clear duty to provide safe, humane treatment for those in its custody. These types of arbitrary punishment and torture tactics being used on those held waiting for trial is an outrage and it needs to stop now,” said Maureen Hanlon, Staff Attorney at ArchCity Defenders.
“People inside the CJC have made clear that the conditions inside are abhorrent. Instead of dealing with these conditions, staff persist in unlawfully punishing anyone and everyone. The experiences of Derrick Jones, Jerome Jones, and Darnell Rusan shed further light on system wide problems and require system wide solutions,” said Oren Nimni, Litigation Director at Rights Behind Bars.
“The use of mace and water shutoffs to arbitrarily punish inmates at the CJC clearly violates international human rights standards, including the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment,” said Lauren Bartlett, Director of the Human Rights at Home Litigation Clinic at St. Louis University School of Law. “As stated in the Nelson Mandela Rules- the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, all prisoners shall be treated with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings.”
CJC staff further punished plaintiffs and other detainees held on the 5th floor by cutting off the water to cells which deprives them of potable water and water to flush their toilets. For several days following the uprising on February 6, 2021, “detainees on the fifth floor had no access to water to drink or ability to flush the toilet. For these days, Jerome Jones, Derrick Jones, and the other detainees were also not receiving regular, if any, meals, and as such were not given any juice or other supplements at mealtime.” Since that time, these men and countless others have been subjected to continued punitive and retaliatory water shut-offs. These deprivations occur sporadically but regularly, and are imposed not in response to misconduct related to plumbing, but as punishment for minor and non-threatening misconduct, such as asking questions or “getting an attitude.” These shut-offs have persisted for months, and continue to take place.
The individual cases in this complaint are not unique. The excessive use of mace without warning and for the purpose of inflicting pain—like those incidents involving plaintiffs—is common at CJC. So is the practice of subjecting inmates to punitive and retaliatory deprivations of water.
Adding insult to injury, plaintiffs reported being denied access to the jail’s “grievance process” and also described the process as confusing and unresponsive. From the inexplicable and abusive macing, the lack of medical attention and treatment, the deprivation of water, and concerns about lack of accountability, the men who have been detained in CJC illuminate a pattern of violence that they and others have survived. In addition to monetary damages, the men are asking for an order prohibiting the City and jail staff from continuing their unconstitutional and punitive macing and water shut-off practices.
In March, Anthony Tillman, a 40-year old man with paraplegia, represented by the same firms, filed a federal lawsuit against the City because he had been denied a wheelchair accessible shower for over 160 days while detained in CJC. After going to court, the City had to provide Mr. Tillman with a shower while held at CJC.
Since late December, people detained at CJC have organized at least four protests stemming from a pervasive culture of inhumane conditions, abuse, and lack of COVID-19 safety protocols.