With her long history of chronic asthma and sickle cell anemia, a short stay at the St. Louis Justice Center for failing to appear in court for two traffic violations cost LaVonda Kimble her life.
She died of an acute asthma attack less than 12 hours after arriving at the jail two years ago. The St. Louis Fire Department report alleges that poor medical care, delays and incompetence may have contributed to the woman’s death.
Tragically, Kimble, age 30, wasn’t even supposed to be jailed. Her $250 bond had been paid in Bel-Nor hours before she became ill, but her paperwork was delayed by a mix-up.
Joshua Turner was being held at the Workhouse, the city’s medium-security institution, on a charge of property damage from December 2006. He was accused of damaging a window, drywall and a broom at the Boys and Girls Town of Missouri.
In January 2008, Turner, age 18, managed to get a bedsheet to hang himself despite being on suicide watch. A staffer left the sheet within Turner’s reach by stuffing it under his cell door. Turner had been held at the jail for one year while his court case lingered.
Cedric Cross, a former inmate at the Justice Center, contacted the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for help, alleging that a correctional officer at the jail had assaulted him. According to Cross, he left the jail on March 29, 2007, crawling and unable to walk. He underwent immediate surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital as a result of his injuries, which included swelling to the stomach and internal bleeding.
Kimble, Turner and Cross are among many in City jails who have been physically abused, medically neglected, experienced extended incarceration or died during the last three years, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri’s scathing preliminary investigation that sheds light on “endemic abuse” and “patterns of policy violations” in St. Louis jails.
The report, titled “Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers,” raises serious and troubling questions about the treatment of inmates by staff at the correctional centers.
Redditt Hudson, ACLU-EM program associate who wrote the report, called the 67-page document an “important wake-up call” that demands urgent reform of the two jails.
Prior to joining the ACLU-EM in 2005, Hudson was a former St. Louis police officer who left the force in 1999 to focus on addressing systematic problems in the criminal justice system.
“We have an inmate in this report that describes witnessing an assault on another inmate by a correctional officer that was so sadistic that the inmate urinated blood as a result of the assault,” Hudson said. “Those are the kinds of things that really demand that a sane and just society take action.”
During a yearlong investigation, dozens of inmates have contacted the American and ACLU-EM to complain about the conditions in the City jails. Many of them cited incidents of poor medical care and neglect, correctional officers allowing inmates to assault each other, improper living conditions, extended incarceration and sexual misconduct at the St. Louis Justice Center (located at 200 South Tucker Blvd.) and the Workhouse (located at 7600 Hall St., north of Downtown).
Many of them – including the six correctional officers quoted in ACLU-EM’s report – wished to remain anonymous with their stories in fear of retaliation.
The ACLU-EM scheduled a press conference with three of the correctional officers last week but hours before the conference all three decided not to go public with their claims.
“The opportunity for them to go forward publicly is still there,” Hudson said of the officers. “I think that at some point in the future they are going to do that.”
‘Where’s the justice?’
Several inmates and correctional officers claim that living conditions in the jails are so poor that they violate inmates’ constitutional rights.
“I’ve been here for 26 months (as of January 25, 2008) and haven’t been in front of a judge or nothing,” one inmate told the American. “Only one time, and that was when they asked if I plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’”
Overcrowding at the Justice Center is so severe that inmates regularly sleep under beds or next to toilets, a guard – identified as “CO2” – said in ACLU-EM’s report. Two-men cells often are converted into three-men cells to accommodate the jails’ population.
“If you say this is the Justice Center, then where’s the justice?” one inmate told the American. “They have us just sitting down here.”
Staph infections are a common issue in jails because of close living quarters.
Prior to coming to the Justice Center, one inmate was run over by a car twice, resulting in impairments to his back, legs and shoulder.
He said he asked for physical therapy but the jail denied him because of budget problems. Not long after he arrived to the jail, he fell in the shower, causing “a big knot” on his back, resulting in a staph infection that was treated at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
According to a letter he sent to the American in April 2008, he underwent surgery and six weeks of IV antibiotic treatment because he had contracted MRSA – a drug-resistant strain of staph – on his shoulder while in custody.
Another inmate the report identifies as “Inmate 1,” with a history of seizures, said he was placed in a cell with no running water for 30 days.
Another inmate, “Inmate 4,” said he has seen inmates who have slept in their own feces and urine for days and were refused help by correctional officers. That same inmate said he has seen inmates who have had “fingers, toes and legs amputated as a result of getting staph in that place.”
Other inmates allege correctional officers ignore medical emergencies or delay or deny treatment if they do not move quickly enough to claim them.
According to “CO3” in ACLU’s report, one inmate even died from medical inattention after correctional officers would not allow him to see a doctor because they thought he was “faking.” After falling and finally being approved to go to the doctor, he returned to his cell, where within 20 minutes he was found dead on a mattress on the floor.
Inmates and correctional officers further allege there have been cover-ups of beatings in February 2006 and February 2007.
The incident in 2007 involved a 16-year-old inmate who was allegedly stomped and punched and kicked in the face by a guard, according to “CO1” in the report.
Inmates allege correctional officers would unlock cells to let inmates jump on other inmates. Correctional officers say guards falsify reports and bring drugs into the facilities. Whistleblowers are punished, one guard said in the report.
There is a widespread breakdown in supervision within the system, Hudson said. These types of systematic abuses in the jails are maintained by an “atmosphere of retaliation and intimidation.”
“I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever of action being taken to correct the kinds of corrupt human rights violations and policy violations that are there,” he said.
At the end of 2007, the Board of Aldermen conducted hearings into the Public Safety Department shortly after Charles Bryson was appointed to take over the department after former director Sam Simon resigned, following a long impasse between Mayor Francis G. Slay and Fire Chief Sherman George over promotions within the fire department.
The public safety director supervises the fire department, the city's two jails, the building division and other offices.
The purpose of those hearings (Resolution 68) was for the aldermen to get an understanding of operations and procedures as they work within the department.
After the death of Kimble and Turner, Simon and Bryson respectively launched investigations into the deaths.
The results of those investigations are unknown to the American. Neither Bryson nor the Mayor’s Office returned calls to the newspaper before press time.
Justice Center Superintendent Eugene Stubblefield did not return a call seeking comment either.
“People are going to want to try to turn this into some kind of black and white, criminal versus non-criminal, soft on crime, tough on crime,” Hudson said.
“That’s not what this is about. This is about what kind of nation, what kind of community we want to be.”
ACLU-EM has forwarded its investigation to the U.S. Justice Department.
The ACLU-EM's full report, “Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers,” may be accessed at www.aclu-em.org/downloads/ACLUSufferingFullReport.pdf or http://tinyurl.com/cmuobj.