Suit seeks damages, policy changes
The stories of abuse at City Justice Center detailed in a newly filed lawsuit seem endless — but there’s a common thread through them all: correctional officers are allegedly excessively macing inmates and withholding access to clean water as punishments.
The lawsuit was filed May 24 on behalf of Derrick Jones, Darnell Rusan and Jerome Jones (no relation) by attorneys with ArchCity Defenders, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Rights Behind Bars and the Saint Louis University School of Law Clinics.
Derrick Jones has been in custody at CJC since November 3, 2020, Jerome Jones spent over two years in custody there awaiting trial before he was ultimately acquitted and Darnell Rusan has been in custody since around Thanksgiving 2020.
Maureen Hanlon, a staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders, said they’re not only seeking monetary damages, but a commitment from the city to change the jail’s policies, as well.
“I think we are hopeful that the new mayoral administration will be willing to consider some of these injunctive changes, which are protections that would seem to align with public statements from the mayor about improving and making sure the jail is a humane and safe place for people,” Hanlon said.
The lawsuit claims one of the plaintiffs, Derrick Jones, was maced after requesting to move to a different cell because his cellmate was showing signs of COVID-19. Jones says he was then taken to the ground, kicked, handcuffed and maced again. Instead of providing him with a change of clothes and medical attention, Derrick Jones says a lieutenant said “let him marinate.”
While Derrick Jones later saw a medical staff member who washed his eyes, he was taken to solitary confinement for eight days, where he was denied a shower and change of clothes.
“It's been hard, I've been in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Derrick Jones in a media release. “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 six 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.”
His mother, Catrese Howard, told The St. Louis American she’s overwhelmed by the way her son has been treated in the jail and said she has not been able to once get in touch with someone at the facility about the conditions. She said his caseworker also hasn’t been able to provide information or answer her questions.
“I know there’s a lot that goes on there, but at the end of the day my son has been in solitary confinement since mid-December,” she said. “I wouldn’t want another mother to have to hang close to her phone and worry day in and day out about the safety of their loved ones that are inside that place because you just don’t know what may happen.”
Hanlon said another big issue with conditions at CJC is that most detainees are being held pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted of the crime they’ve been charged with. She said the law is clear that unless detainees are aggressive or pose a physical threat, macing them is not a legal course of action.
“Assuming that you are being properly detained in pretrial detention only you're not supposed to be subject to any kind of punishment at all,” she said of the law.
That doesn’t seem to stop the correctional officers, however. The lawsuit states Rusan was maced two times, first in December 2020 and then in February 2021.
In December, he said correctional officers maced him, removed him from the shower, handcuffed him, and slammed his head into an elevator wall. Then, while he was in the medical unit, a correctional officer started hitting and choking Rusan and said “we’ll kill your little ass in here.” He said he was then forced into a room that the officers abundantly sprayed mace into and left there for nine hours.
In February, Rusan and others were subjected to nude body cavity searches and during that time he was sprayed with a large amount of mace and left in the same room for four hours.
“Somebody has to do something,” said Rusan in a media release. “People are going to do what you let them do and I hope that this lawsuit is an attempt to stop that.”
After questioning why he had to move cells, Jerome Jones said he 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. Jerome Jones said no, and they sprayed 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.
Hanlon said she hopes this lawsuit brings about real change in the way people in custody are treated.
“There are problems with these conditions and still there's been a real sort of denial that problems of any sort exist,” she said. “And so I know I'm hopeful that we can at least acknowledge that there are problems that need to be taken care of.”
Howard echoed that, saying she wants to see some accountability.
“It is really unfathomable just to know no one has been held accountable for the things that have happened to my son — like a caged animal in so many words,” Howard said. “You know, my son has said that to me before, ‘mom, they treat me like an animal.’”
The complaint can be read in full online at https://bit.ly/3yIS4sI.