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City Workhouse

The St. Louis Medium Security Institution, or City Workhouse, at 7600 Hall Street north of downtown on Thursday, July 28, 2011. David Carson

ST. LOUIS • Guards in the St. Louis "workhouse" forced prisoners into "gladiator-style combat," bet on the fights and used inmate attackers to provide discipline or amusement, according to a federal lawsuit filed here Friday.

Seven inmates are demanding $150 million in damages from guards, officials and the Medium Security Institution, the formal name for the city's jail at 7600 Hall Street. The suit seeks class action status to represent others, who lawyers say have been victims of years of similar abuse.

One attack, recorded by a surveillance camera, led to filing of criminal charges against two corrections officers in June.

Guards sometimes used promises of special privileges — such as extra food or snacks — to enlist an attack, said Ryan Smith, one of the lawyers representing inmates. Other times, according to the suit and lawyers, an inmate was himself threatened with attack by fellow prisoners or guards unless he agreed to fight.

Smith said guards sometimes bet on the outcomes.

"This is no different than ... dogfighting," Smith said, "except this time, we're dealing with human lives."

Lawyer Paul Sims said one of his clients suffered a broken jaw. Another had blood in his urine. Both allegedly were denied medical care. Sims said most of the attacks took place in isolation cells.

Smith said one of his clients was on suicide watch and "naked and helpless" when an attacker was let into his cell.

Sam Dotson, a police captain working as Mayor Francis Slay's director of operations, said the incident caught on video was reported to police by jail staff. He said the guards involved were immediately placed on leave and criminally charged.

Dotson, who had not yet seen the civil suit, told a reporter the city is continuing to investigate. Whatever is found, he pledged, "we're going to expose it ... and bring it to the proper authorities."

Responding to the claims of gladiator-style fighting, Dotson said, "I haven't seen anything that shows that it was an organized event."

The recorded incident occurred May 24, according to court documents. The guards facing charges are Elvis Maurice Howard, 32, of the 5400 block of Partridge Avenue, and Dexter Brinson, 45, of the 4900 block of Northland Place. They are charged with first-degree burglary, third-degree assault and obstructing government operations.

There is no dispute among officials or inmates' lawyers that a jail staffer was watching surveillance video when he spotted the attack and reported it.

Charging documents claim that inmate Derrick Rodgers was sitting in his cell when the door suddenly opened and Thaddeus Dumas entered. The door was locked behind Dumas, and he began punching Rodgers. The attack lasted about a minute, and when Dumas was let out, the recording shows that his shirt was torn down the middle, according to charging documents. The guards allegedly watched from outside the cell.

Dumas told investigators that Howard and Brinson had come to his cell, and asked him whether he wanted to fight the inmate in Cell 50. He responded, "Yes."

The suit says that Dumas was told that he would be attacked if he did not attack Rodgers.

It also says that he was attacked on multiple occasions and now has a "price on his head' for cooperating with investigators.

Dumas, 22, of St. Louis, is in jail charged with burglary, property damage and attempted theft. No age is listed for Rodgers in court records. He is shown as being homeless and was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty July 31 of domestic assault and violating an order of protection.

Lawyers said that more inmates came forward after the guards were charged in June. They said they would like for any victims to contact them.

Besides Rogers and Dumas, plaintiffs in the suit and their claims are:

• Zachary Ward, 21, of St. Louis, attacked by a guard and other inmates, and who had attacked inmates under threats or duress from guards. Ward was awaiting trial on a drug possession charge and recently received probation for resisting arrest.

• William L. Owens, attacked by an inmate for threatening to report the guard's attack on Ward. Owens, 21, of Jennings, was held on charges of tampering and resisting arrest.

• Frankie D. Edwards, of St. Louis, assaulted by guards or an inmate. He was in jail on a felony drug charge and misdemeanor use of drug paraphernalia charge.

• Dwayne Q. Shelton, of St. Louis, assaulted by guards or an inmate. He was convicted by a jury in July of statutory sodomy and awaits sentencing.

• Jared M. Williams, 25, of St. Louis, attacked by inmates multiple times and then attacked by a guard when he refused to attack an inmate, the suit says. He was awaiting trial on multiple counts of first-degree assault and armed criminal action.

Lawyer Dan Brown said that officials have been on notice about jail conditions since a critical report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009. That document, based on interviews with four guards and two former guards, claimed that staff beat and sexually harassed inmates and brought in drugs.

Three months later, three guards were arrested and accused of smuggling what they thought was heroin to inmates. All pleaded guilty.

Dumas' father, Hyram Brooks, was at a news conference outside federal court Friday afternoon to announce the suit. Brooks said his son told him "that if he didn't fight, he was gonna get beaten."

"He said it happens all the time," Hyram Brooks noted.

Frankie Boyd, Edwards' grandmother, was nearly in tears when he spoke about trying to get him out of jail. "I can't help him. All I can do is pray and tell people what's going on."