ST. LOUIS — A lawsuit filed Monday alleges inmates at a medium-security jail in St. Louis live in “inhumane conditions” that include rodent feces in food, infestations of bugs and snakes, and unbearable overcrowding.
The nonprofit ArchCity Defenders filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of seven former inmates seeking monetary damages and closure of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse.
The St. Louis mayor’s office said the jail is inspected multiple times each year by the city Health Department and problems are addressed as they arise. Spokesman Koran Addo said preventative maintenance is also regularly conducted at the jail, which opened in the 1960s.
Among those filing suit was 43-year-old James Cody of Jefferson City, who was jailed for eight months this year on a probation violation. He said he often found mouse feces in cake served at the jail. Jail staff would simply scrape off the feces, he said.
Cody said he was housed in a dorm with 69 other men, all sharing a single working toilet, sink and shower. He recalled the heat of summer, when temperatures inside the jail reached 125 degrees, according to the lawsuit. The hot conditions led to July protests that resulted in city officials temporarily bringing in portable air conditioners.
“I felt like I was treated like a dog,” Cody said at a news conference before correcting himself. “Dogs get treated better, to tell you the truth.”
Another former inmate, Diedre Wortham, was arrested on a decade-old traffic ticket and spent 22 days in the jail, she said. She says that after being hospitalized for high blood pressure, she was denied medicine for a week.
Wortham said she breathed through a T-shirt because of mold in the jail, and stuffed shirts under her cell door to keep mice out.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the Workhouse alive,” Wortham said.
All seven plaintiffs are black. ArchCity Defenders said in the court filing that the vast majority of inmates at the jail are black, and virtually all of them are being held awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail, mostly for non-violent crimes. A little over half of St. Louis’ residents are black.
Blake Strode, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders, noted that the same jail was the subject of a lawsuit 40 years ago. He said the problems at the jail are further evidence of the way the St. Louis-area’s criminal justice system is destructive to poor, black residents.
Strode called conditions at the jail “unconstitutional and inhumane,” violating constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment.