Ali Qandah wears his faith on his sleeve.
“Praise God,” says the tattoo in Arabic on his right forearm.
“Glory to God,” it says on the left.
Qandah, 31, who lives in Shrewsbury and grew up in Maryland Heights, is Muslim.
He is suing St. Charles County, accusing officials of multiple violations of his civil rights stemming from a 10-month stay in the county jail in 2014. Qandah says he was discriminated against because of his religion, physically beaten by another inmate with the assistance of jail officers, and kept in solitary confinement for eight months for no reason other than the fact that he’s Muslim.
Qandah had been accused of fraud at a local fitness club. He has no violent offenses on his record.
Still, he was kept in a solitary cell away from the general population and only let out for one hour of recreation a day, his lawsuit alleges.
“It’s like death, but you’re still breathing,” he remembers.
Qandah’s lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri in February 2018. He’s represented by Javad Khazaeli of the Khazaeli Wyrsch law firm and attorneys from the nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders.
Recently, the lawsuit took a twist.
An updated petition filed late last month accuses a jailer, whom Qandah believes unlocked his cell to allow another inmate to enter it and deliver a beating, of posting several “Islamophobic and xenophobic images to his Facebook page.”
The allegation follows the public release by an organization called the Plain View Project of similar posts by dozens of police officers all over the country, including St. Louis.
There is a national epidemic of racists working in law enforcement, Khazaeli says, and, as in the St. Charles County Jail case, little to nothing is done to punish them or reform the culture of the departments where they work.
“They treat people there like animals,” Khazaeli says of the St. Charles County jail. “The people who are doing it are openly racist and the county doesn’t care.”
According to Qandah’s lawsuit, on Dec. 15, 2014, jail Officer Jeffery Cast opened Qandah’s cell and allowed another inmate to enter, where he proceeded to throw Qandah “to the floor,” causing his “head to strike a metal toilet.”
Qandah had been praying at the time, he said, and didn’t see the inmate enter his cell.
Cast, according to the lawsuit, had posted multiple Facebook posts that “demonstrated an open animosity towards Muslims.” Since being discovered by Qandah’s attorneys, Cast’s Facebook page has been made private.
But he still works at the jail, and to the best of Khazaeli’s determination, hasn’t been punished for his actions toward Qandah.
“When allegations in cases such as the one you are referring to are brought to our attention, we review the facts to make sure that the statements of the employee do not go beyond the rights granted to him by the First Amendment,” said St. Charles County Director of Communications Mary Enger. “We are in the process of doing that now.”
In court filings, attorneys for St. Charles County deny the various allegations against the jail and specifically take issue with the allegation in the lawsuit that there has been a “history of unconstitutional conduct” at the jail.
“Our officers and our policies treat all inmates the same, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity,” Enger said in an emailed statement.
A federal jury will determine if that is true. Meanwhile, Qandah’s case brings further attention to a vexing American problem: the treatment of inmates in county and municipal jails.
I interviewed Qandah in Khazaeli’s office two days after billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, the accused sex trafficker, was found dead after an apparent suicide in his New York jail cell.
The incident drew national attention to the conditions of jails, where deaths of inmates, by suicide or other means, are all too common. Those include four deaths in the last year of inmates either at or shortly after leaving the St. Louis County Jail, and three deaths in the St. Francois County Jail last year, one of which spurred a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Qandah didn’t die when a jail officer opened his jail cell and let another inmate in, but he sure could have, Khazaeli says.
“For every conspiracy that somebody has about Jeffrey Epstein,” Khazaeli says, “this sort of thing actually happens in real life.”
Qandah posed no threat to inmates, or jailers or anybody, says attorney Michael-John Voss of ArchCity Defenders, but officers were “deliberately indifferent to their responsibility to keep him safe while in custody.”
Shortly after being attacked in his cell, Qandah agreed to a plea bargain. He had been behind bars for 10 months because he says he was innocent of the charges, and he wanted his day in court. But the beating broke him. He received a suspended execution of sentence and has already served his probation.
“I wanted to go to trial. I knew I was innocent,” Qandah says. But eight months of solitary confinement and a beating enabled by an allegedly Islamophobic jail guard, changed everything. “I was willing to go to prison to get out of St. Charles County.”