ST. LOUIS – An advocacy group demanded independent oversight of Missouri jails and prisons Tuesday after inmates claimed that a former chief jailer encouraged some inmates to attack others causing problems at his rural jail.
The allegations were echoed in court documents and a federal indictment against Washington County's former chief deputy, Vernon G. Wilson, who has pleaded not guilty to civil rights violations and making false statements to the FBI.
Former inmate Gary Gieselman, who was arrested Sept. 29, 2005 for writing a bad check, told The Associated Press that he was attacked shortly after arriving at the jail in Potosi, about 50 miles southwest of St. Louis. Gieselman said he had a "misunderstanding" with correctional officer Valeria Wilson Jackson, Wilson's daughter, and was placed in a cell with five other men.
"I remember being jumped from behind," Gieselman said. "I remember hearing something cracking in my head. Then I remember waking up unconscious in the hospital."
One of the inmates convicted for the attack, Christopher Wallace, said neither Wilson nor his daughter specifically told him to rough up Gieselman, but the implication was clear: They could earn cigarettes if they did.
"It was kind of implied with a grin and a smile," Wallace said in a phone interview from prison. "His daughter came in and made the statement, 'I don't smell smoke yet,' because they gave cigarettes as a reward."
The allegations, first reported Tuesday by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to call for action.
"We get an amazing number of complaints from jails and prisons throughout Missouri," said John Chasnoff of the ACLU's office in St. Louis. "As horrible as it is, as shocking as it is, it's not totally surprising."
Prosecutors declined comment to the AP on Tuesday, but told the Post-Dispatch that they believe an argument Gieselman had with Jackson led to his beating. They said Gieselman was targeted because of constant complaining and for calling Jackson a derogatory name.
"I can only tell you that this case will be defended as vigorously as any case can be defended," said Wilson's lawyer, Burton Shostak.
Wilson, who was indicted in July, has been released on bond. The federal indictment also cited two cases in which Wilson was accused of striking inmates so hard that their heads slammed into concrete walls. In December, he received a 180-day suspended sentence and probation after pleading guilty to misdemeanor third-degree assault.
His daughter pleaded guilty in July to one federal count of obstructing justice, and is awaiting sentencing. As part of her plea, she said her father used an inmate as an enforcer.
Alleged enforcers are identified in court documents by their initials, or not at all. The Post-Dispatch used jail records and interviews to learn their identities.
Wallace said he regrets the attack on Gieselman, and claims it was the first and only time he was used as an enforcer. He received a five-year sentence in the attack, concurrent to unrelated sentences for drug and robbery charges, and is hopeful of getting out on parole in November.
Lanny Parks also was convicted for the beating and was sentenced to three years in prison, concurrent with an unrelated term for endangering a child and resisting arrest.
Gieselman, 45, hasn't fully recovered from the attack. An unemployed construction worker now living in St. Louis, he said his face is disfigured and he has vision problems in his right eye.
Former Washington County Sheriff Kevin Schroeder was not implicated in any wrongdoing, and current Sheriff Andy Skiles, who took over in 2009, said only three of the 43 jobs in the department are holdovers from Schroeder's administration. Wilson and Jackson are no longer employed there.
Chasnoff said the ACLU is in negotiations with St. Louis to create an independent oversight committee that he said could be a statewide model. Last year, the ACLU wrote a report outlining problems at the St. Louis city jail, including allegations of inmate abuse.
"I believe the long-term solution is to have independent oversight for all the jails and prisons in the state," Chasnoff said.