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Messenger: Lawsuits reveal the ugly truth of jail conditions in St. Louis region
Tony's Take

Messenger: Lawsuits reveal the ugly truth of jail conditions in St. Louis region

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Hopple and Brown

Rob Hopple, left, and his domestic partner, Kristin Brown. Photo provided.

A wire scorpion sits atop my bedroom dresser.

Kristin Brown made it for me while her domestic partner was in the St. Francois County Jail.

On the bottom of the wooden base, Brown, who is a substitute teacher, wrote a quotation from the philosopher Plato about the importance of seeking truth. That’s what Brown’s partner, Rob Hopple, is doing with the help of several attorneys and other former detainees at a jail that is becoming notorious for its horrific conditions.

On Monday, the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders, the Simon Law Firm and Farmington lawyer Vonne Karraker filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the jail, its private, for-profit medical provider, and several county employees, alleging they turned a blind eye for years to “chronic and systemic problems” at the jail.

“Defendants were deliberately indifferent to the substantial risk of pain and suffering and harm to detainees, including serious injury, clinical deterioration, and death, caused by their inadequate, unlawful, and unconstitutional policies, practices, and customs,” alleges the lawsuit, which names two other plaintiffs, Stefani Rudigier and Shawn Mesey, and seeks class-action status.

That Hopple was even in jail, and particularly for more than five months, tells a story about the failures of criminal justice in America. I wrote about his case in late 2018. Hopple was in jail because he was poor. He had been arrested on a charge that evidence didn’t support. At first, Hopple was able to bail out of jail.

The judge in the case, former St. Francois County Circuit Judge Sandra Martinez, put Hopple back behind bars when he couldn’t afford the $300 a month she required him to pay for an ankle monitor. Hopple had showed up to court with a less expensive model, but that wasn’t good enough for Martinez. Then, prosecutor Jerrod Mahurin kept delaying the court date, trying to force Hopple into a plea bargain. All of that kept Hopple in jail, which is what spurred Brown to tell me about his case in the first place.

While there, according to the lawsuit, Hopple endured horrendous conditions, including beatings from other detainees, crowding, negative physical and mental health outcomes, and “unsanitary” conditions.

“Mr. Hopple experienced and witnessed deputy cruelty throughout his detention. One practice, called ‘Friday Night Fights,’ took place when deputies assigned to the weekend and overnight shifts arranged fights between detainees,” the lawsuit alleges.

Hopple was eventually released on his own recognizance. After an election that both Martinez and Mahurin lost, the charges against him were dropped by the new prosecutor. He passed a polygraph test she asked him to take.

This is what happens to too many people in a country with the worst mass incarceration problem in the developed world, with people like Hopple suffering life-changing consequences because of cruel practices that violate their civil rights before they have ever been convicted of a crime. Most of them are poor. They often don’t have a voice until it’s too late.

So it was for Lamar Catchings, the 20-year-old Black man from north St. Louis who was one of five people to die in the St. Louis County Justice Center last year. Catchings had leukemia, and it was ignored by jail officials. His mother’s attorney, Mark Pedroli, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last week seeking damages for alleged negligence in his death.

One jail is in the urban core; the other in rural Missouri. Both suffer from a malady too prevalent in the state: a lack of respect for the health and civil rights of people who end up behind bars. Both cases are likely to cost taxpayers millions of dollars in damages.

“Governments must embrace radical transparency and comprehensive reform or it will be imposed upon them,” Pedroli says. “All Americans, whether secure in their home or held as a pretrial detainee, are entitled to constitutional rights. The more we accept encroachment upon those rights the greater the risk to everyone.”

Hopple may never get over what the St. Francois County Jail did to him. Catchings is dead. Neither was convicted of the alleged crime that put them behind bars in the first place. The truth stings.

Tony Messenger • 314-340-8518 @tonymess on Twitter tmessenger@post-dispatch.com

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