The St. Louis legal advocacy organization ArchCity Defenders has filed a lawsuit against the city’s Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse. They hope to obtain a ruling that will close the institution, widely criticized by protestors and political activists as inhumane.
At a press conference on Monday, November 13 at Christ Church Cathedral, ArchCity lawyers and two of their plaintiffs spoke about conditions at the Workhouse which led the organization to regard detention there as cruel and unusual punishment and, as such, unconstitutional.
“On any given day, detainees in the jail must endure infestations of rats, snakes, cockroaches, and other insects; extreme temperatures ranging from stifling heat in the summers to frigid cold in the winters; inconsistent and inadequate provision of medical care and mental health treatment; poor air quality and proliferation of mold caused by the jail’s lack of ventilation and inadequate sanitation; overcrowding; insufficient staffing; and a culture of fear created by frequent violence and retaliation, including by jail staff,” the lawsuit reads.
“These conditions not only violate the United States Constitution, but also run afoul of the most basic standards of human decency.”
The suit was filed in federal court and relies on constitutional arguments, as there are few federal laws regulating prisons. ArchCity Defenders charges that the Workhouse conditions violate the First, Eighth and Fourteenth amendments. They are seeking monetary damages for the seven plaintiffs in the case, two of them anonymous, all formerly incarcerated at the Workhouse.
The lawsuit also asked that either the Workhouse be closed or the city be required to pay a $10,000 fine each day it does not install air conditioning or end the facility’s mold problem.
Blake Strode, recently chosen as the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said up to 99 percent of detainees at the Workhouse are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty of any crime. They are incarcerated, he said, mostly because they cannot afford to pay cash bail after being arrested on minor charges.
One plaintiff, James Cody, was held at the Workhouse for nine months on a probation violation. Cody described the facility as being overcrowded and in a state of disrepair. He was housed, he said, in a 70-person dorm with only one working toilet, sink or shower and no air circulation, with no pane in the window near his bed.
“I made a promise that I would actually say something about it,” Cody said.
Another plaintiff, Diedre Wortham, said she was denied medication at the Workhouse for her high blood pressure and faced unsanitary conditions, including black mold. Wortham said prison staff seemed unconcerned about her medical condition, although she had just been hospitalized while in custody at the City Justice Center.
“They will leave you for dead at the Workhouse,” Wortham said.
Jamala Rogers, executive director for the Organization for Black Struggle, also appeared at the press conference to support the lawsuit and advocate for closure of the Workhouse. Rogers said conditions at the facility, which has been the subject of several previous suits, go unchecked because those incarcerated there are largely poor and black.
Rogers said, “There is nothing now that could be done with the Workhouse to reform it.”
Jessica Karins is an editorial intern for the St. Louis American from Webster University.