Ferguson-Area Cities "Terrorizing" Poor Through Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons: Federal Lawsuit
We can't "hold people in jail because they're too poor to pay a debt," says lawyer
A new federal class-action lawsuit accuses 13 St. Louis-area municipalities of "terrorizing" poor, primarily African-American people through a "deliberate and coordinated conspiracy" by "creating a modern-day police state and debtors' prison scheme that has no place in American society."
The non-profit ArchCity Defenders and the law firm Arnold & Porter filed the suit Tuesday, the same day as demonstrators were marking the two-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a report last year into Ferguson's police practices, concluding that the department engaged in systematic targeting of African-American citizens, and "consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson's law enforcement activity."
As the Guardian reports, "Tuesday's suit describes how this revenue-focused policing model has continued apace in St. Louis County's neighboring municipalities."
The new suit names the city of St. Anne, which acted as a "jail hub," and 12 other smaller municipalities: Edmundson, Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda City, Beverly Hills, Pagedale, Calverton Park, St. John, Bel Ridge, Wellston, Velda Village Hills, and Bellefontaine Neighbors.
"These cities are all coordinating together in order to hold people who cannot afford to pay traffic fines and can't afford to pay cash bail because of their poverty," said Blake Strode, an ArchCity Defenders attorney, to local news KDSK. "No one's arguing that there shouldn't be any punishment for these things, but what we can't do is hold people in jail because they're too poor to pay a debt."
The suit further states: "Defendants are forcing the poorest and most vulnerable citizens to finance a municipal system that is a toll of injustice and oppression."
"Whether or not valid, a citation for a minor offense—a broken tail light, a lane change without signaling—often generates clipping debts for people like Plaintiffs, resulting in jail time when they cannot afford to pay, deepening their already desperate poverty," it continues.
Further, as Mariah Stewart and Ryan J. Reilly reported for the Huffington Post:
Inmates incarcerated by St. Ann, the suit alleges, are held under horrific conditions that include overcrowded cells, "reused" blankets, "disgusting and unsanitary" mattresses, and "unhealthy and nearly inedible" food. Inmates were not allowed to shower until they had been held at the jail for a week, the lawsuit says, and trash piles in cells gave off a "very pungent odor."
One legally blind plaintiff alleges officers refused to allow her to keep her glasses. Another says she was denied her medications, and that guards called her "crazy"and an "African child." Yet another says she was held in a cell with a schizophrenic inmate announcing she wanted to kill someone.
ArchCity Defenders filed another federal suit on Tuesday on behalf of four Ferguson protesters who say that city and its prosecutors "pursued baseless charges" against them and and that lawyers were driven by "personal, financial incentives" to do so.