A St. Louis jail with only one working toilet for 70 inmates and infestations of snakes, squirrels and birds is creating “hellish and inhumane conditions” for those held there, according to a lawsuit filed against the city.
The seven former inmates of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution who filed the lawsuit Monday say the squalid -- and dangerous -- conditions violate inmates’ constitutional rights, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
"I felt like I was treated like a dog," said 43-year-old James Cody of Jefferson City, who was jailed there for eight months this year on a probation violation.
He then corrected himself: "Dogs get treated better, to tell you the truth."
Cody, speaking at a news conference, said he often found mouse feces in cake served at the jail.
The response from jail staff? Simply scrape off the feces, Cody said.
Cody added mice would jump into bed with inmates and one prisoner tried constructing a crude rat trap with peanut butter so he could kill them himself.
Some of the windows at the jail – which houses 551 inmates – are boarded up, creating sweltering conditions in the summertime, the lawsuit alleges. Others have no window screens, providing an open door for such invaders as mosquitoes, squirrels and birds, allowing the critters to have “a regular presence” inside, the lawsuit adds.
The St. Louis mayor's office told The Associated Press the jail is inspected multiple times each year by the city Health Department and problems are addressed as they arise. Spokesman Koran Addo said preventative maintenance is also regularly conducted at the jail, which opened in the 1960s.
St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass would not comment on the lawsuit Monday, but rejected claims about mold and the infestations, and said guards and inmates were not being attacked by snakes and spiders.
He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the jail is “showing signs of disrepair, but it’s clean.”
The nonprofit ArchCity Defenders law firm filed the federal lawsuit seeking closure of the facility -- or to fine St. Louis $10,000 per day until the alleged problems are fixed, the Post-Dispatch reported.
Blake Strode, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders, called conditions at the jail "unconstitutional and inhumane," violating constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment.
Another former inmate, Diedre Wortham, was arrested on a decade-old traffic ticket and spent 22 days in the jail, she said. She says after being hospitalized for high blood pressure, she was denied medicine for a week.
Wortham told The Associated Press she breathed through a T-shirt because of mold in the jail, and stuffed shirts under her cell door to keep mice out.
"I didn't think I was going to make it out of the Workhouse alive," Wortham said.
Cody also said he was housed in a dorm with 69 other men, all sharing a single working toilet, sink and shower. He recalled the heat of summer, when temperatures inside the jail reached 125 degrees, according to the lawsuit. The hot conditions led to July protests that resulted in city officials temporarily bringing in portable air conditioners.
But limited ice and water has sparked conflicts among inmates, who find themselves suffering from dehydration and heat rashes, the lawsuit alleges, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Glass told the newspaper future heat waves could bring back the temporary air conditioners, but said it’s not unusual for local jails and state prisons to be without AC.
He said a health department inspection earlier this year found no mold, despite inmates being given the chance to point out any.
Glass, a former Baptist minister, also told the Post-Dispatch his goal is to have “no need” for the facility by addressing mental health, substance abuse and other factors that can lead to the crimes that get inmates sent there.
Still, the jail has been accused of wrongdoing numerous times in the past few years.
A 2009 American Civil Liberties Union report said the staff running the facility allowed inmates to assault each other and ignored sexual harassment, according to the Post-Dispatch.
A 2012 lawsuit also accused the jail’s guards of forcing prisoners into "gladiator-style combat,” which it denied.
Missouri state Rep. Joshua Peters, who was also at the press conference Monday, said he toured the jail in April with other lawmakers and confirmed the inmates’ complaints in the lawsuit. But so far, according to the Post-Dispatch, he has not been able to get local and state officials to make changes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.