POLITICS

A City Near Ferguson Is Still Caging Humans In A 'Grotesque' Jail Over Traffic Tickets, Lawsuit Charges

Lawsuit alleges the city of Florissant was running a "modern debtors' prison scheme" and locking the poor in jail over minor municipal code violations.

FLORISSANT, Mo. ― For the past several years, 47-year-old Meredith Walker has dreaded driving. Walker hasn’t had a moving violation in more than 15 years. But the St. Louis County resident still fears she could be pulled over and jailed at any time because she can’t afford to pay off her outstanding debts. She’s been jailed at least 10 times in just five years.

“When I first got locked up, my child cried so hard, wondering when his mother would come home,” Walker, a teacher and a mother of two, said in a recent interview. “I will never forget my child crying on the phone because he didn’t know when I was coming home.”

Walker says she even changed her hair because she believed she was stopped more frequently when she had dreadlocks and a more masculine appearance. But despite paying over $15,000 in fees, court costs and bond forfeitures to various municipalities in St. Louis County ― many of which derive large portions of their budgets from fines and fees ― Walker’s license was suspended because a number of cities still say she owes them money for unpaid tickets.

“They are preying on communities that just don’t have the disposable income or family support to borrow the money,” Walker told Huffpost. “It’s either you pay or go to jail. There’s no in between.”

Being locked up so frequently has had an impact on Walker’s family and career. She chose her most recent job, in part, because it was a shorter distance from her home, decreasing the likelihood that she’ll be pulled over. It’s impacted her sense of security. She no longer feels confident that she’ll be safe just going about her business, and says that she believes the police have targeted her because of her race.

“What is enough? I can’t change the color of my skin, nor would I ever want to,” Walker said. “So why is it that the one thing I can’t change about myself used to determine whether or not I’m a threat?”

Walker is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed late Monday by ArchCity Defenders, a civil rights organization based in St. Louis, against the city of Florissant. ArchCity Defenders has been involved in a number of similar lawsuits, including a recent suit against 13 other St. Louis County municipalitiesand won a settlement with the city of Jenningswhich also borders Ferguson, over the same type of conduct alleged in Florissant. A separate lawsuit against the city of Ferguson is pending.

Florissant is the largest municipality in St. Louis County by population, with over 52,000 residents. Although African-Americans make up less than 30 percent of the population in Florissant, they are pulled over, searched and arrested much more often than whites, even though police are much less likely to find contraband when they do search them compared to whites, according to a study from Better Together. Over the past five years, Florissant has earned more than $12 million from its municipal court fines and costs, according to the lawsuit.

Florissant issued over 28,000 arrest warrants in 2015, an average of 1.3 arrest warrants per household and nearly one warrant for every adult. The city collected more than $2.3 million in court fines, fees and forfeited bond payments that year, according to the lawsuit.

Walker, a plaintiff on the gripping lawsuit who’s been jailed in Florissant two or three times, has unsuccessfully tried to pay the city $3,000 with a mandatory $100 a month. The lawsuit described the conditions inside Florissant’s jail as “deplorable.” Walker, who referred to her experience in the jail as “unpleasant” and “nasty,” said she was exposed to unsanitary conditions and also said there was no privacy for restroom use with male guards present.

The lead plaintiff, Thomas Baker, a 41-year-old former army reservist and father of three, has been jailed in Florissant approximately 15 times. On top of high bonds, anywhere from $600 to $1,2000, to secure his release, Baker said no cups were allowed in the jail and so he was forced to drink from a “toilet basin” located inches above the toilet bowl. From the lawsuit:

Once locked in the Florissant jail, impoverished people who cannot afford to pay the City endure grotesque treatment. They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or shoes or underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean; illnesses and even infected wounds go untreated and uncovered; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; they are housed in short-sleeve jump suits; shoes and flip-flops are not permitted, so those who are not arrested in socks go barefoot on the dirty cement floor; they huddle in cells kept intentionally cold in order to quiet detainees, forced to retreat under a single thin blanket as they beg guards for warmer coverings; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water dispensed from an apparatus covered in blood and mucus on top of the toilet, without sufficient pressure to drink from without pressing their lips to the contaminated apparatus; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, or legal materials. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave their disorienting and timeless cage, deprived of windows and perpetually flooded in florescent light.

Jail guards, the suit claims, “routinely taunt impoverished people when they are unable to pay for their release,” the suit claims. The lawsuit says that the plaintiffs were “held in jail indefinitely without either the legal representation of the inquiry into their ability to pay guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Instead, they were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement until their frightened family members produced enough cash to buy their freedom or until City jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to release them free of charge ― after it had become clear the City would not be able to extract any money from them.”

The August 2014 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson brought national attention to tiny St. Louis County municipalities that used their police departments to raise revenue by preying primarily on black residents. Last year, the Justice Department issued a shocking report on the Ferguson Police Department that vindicated the complaints of the city’s black residents, and a settlement with the feds is forcing Ferguson to overhaul its policing practices. But those reforms in Ferguson haven’t had as big of an impact on other St. Louis County municipalities like Florissant, which engaged in many of the same revenue-generating and unconstitutional practices identified in Ferguson.

Thomas Harvey, co-founder of Arch City Defenders, told The Huffington Post he believes there’s been some change in St. Louis County, but said many involved in the region’s splintered municipal court system are resisting the massive reforms he believes are needed. He believes it’s “very important” to get some of the other cities in the area under a federal court order to ensure they aren’t engaged in unconstitutional practices. He said the St. Louis region was “very resistant” to change, pointing out how long it took St. Louis schools to desegregate. (School districts in St. Louis started a desegregation program in the 1980s largely because they feared a federal judge would force city and county schools into a single district.)

“I don’t think there’s any real reason to have faith in voluntary change, or have faith that if there’s change in any one city, it’ll spread to the other cities,” Harvey said. “I think the only real way is for this whole municipal court system to go away. That would be a meaningful change in our clients’ lives and the peoples’ lives who have lived in terror of these police departments and these courts for 50 years.”

Harvey also said he believed it was very important for those who had been unlawfully jailed by municipalities in St. Louis County to receive settlements based on the impact of those jail stays.

“These places have done real damage to people’s lives, and that damage won’t be undone just because they say we’re not going to do this again in the future,” Harvey said. Significant monetary settlements will take away incentives for municipalities to use their courts as revenue generators, according to Harvey.

“I don’t think that should be ignored,” he said. “The DOJ’s agreement in Ferguson doesn’t include any damages for these folks, and we’re going to pursue damages.”

Read the lawsuit below: 

Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis, Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington, D.C.

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