When he was 17, in March of 2021, Eric had been confined to his cell at the St. Louis City Justice Center in Missouri for two weeks. In hopes he might be let out, he flooded his cell. (Grid is only using his first name because he was a minor at the time of the incident.)
After that, Eric said, an officer sprayed what was likely pepper spray through the chuck hole, a small opening in a cell door through which food is typically passed.
“My body was burning,” he wrote. “My eyes were burning. I couldn’t breathe.”
Eric’s handwritten statement is one of dozens filed as part of a lawsuit against the city and several correctional officers, which alleges that detainees — almost all of whom are Black, and many of whom have not been convicted of any crime — are subjected to “persistent and widespread torture practices.” According to the lawsuit, people at the jail are pepper-sprayed for any number of capricious reasons or for no apparent reason at all.
The alleged practices are not limited to the St. Louis jail. In many jails, as well as prisons, staff appear to be “very casual” about using pepper spray, despite its potentially dangerous consequences, said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. Officers don’t have to put on protective gear or even open the cell door. “They can just spray [a detainee] through the cell bars or spray him through the food slot,” he said.
Without a centralized, independent oversight system of correctional facilities, it’s impossible to know how often pepper spray is used, and whether its use has increased or decreased in recent years, Fathi said.
The lack of oversight, he continued “allows these already closed environments to operate in the shadows and largely with impunity.”
And even when local oversight is attempted, it may not have the authority necessary to effect change. In 2019, the St. Louis county executive resurrected a local advisory board to conditions at the county jail after the deaths of several detained people, including one person who died of a curable form of leukemia, according to news reports. But as conditions at the jail continued to deteriorate, several board members resigned in protest, claiming they were not given the tools needed to properly investigate conditions.
Last year, several legal advocacy groups, including MacArthur Justice Center and ArchCity Defenders, filed suit on behalf of three people who, they said, had been abused while held at the city jail. This March, they filed an amended complaint detailing even more human rights violations, many of them gleaned from hundreds of pages of use-of-force reports that the legal team shared exclusively with Grid.
“They really want this to stop,” said Shubra Ohri, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, of her clients. “It’s been very clear that that is a primary interest of everybody’s: Just get this to stop.”
In its legal filings, the city of St. Louis has denied all wrongdoing.
“Pepper mace is carried by corrections staff and employed as a tool to maintain order and security in the correctional facility when an inmate subverts these purposes or threatens other inmates or corrections staff,” reads the city’s answer to the amended complaint.
The lawsuit also claims that officers regularly shut off detained people’s water for hours or days at a time. Water is shut off, according to the city’s filing, “when individual detainees flood their cells or otherwise commit criminal acts of property damage.”
A spokesperson for the mayor wrote in an email to Grid that they are unable to comment on pending litigation, but pointed to the establishment of the “city’s first-ever Detention Facilities Oversight Board.” The board, the spokesperson explained, is “an independent body which will oversee and investigate allegations affecting the health and safety of detainees within the Department of Corrections.” On Wednesday, the mayor signed Board Bill 47, which creates the Division of Civilian Oversight, an independent agency that will investigate complaints at the jail.
But these actions don’t address the current and urgent crisis in the jail, according to the plaintiffs’ litigation team. “Whatever these new oversight structures might look like in the future doesn’t change anything about what people are experiencing right now,” they wrote in an email to Grid. “People are suffering and facing inhumane treatment today.”
Detainees with mental illnesses are vulnerable
At the St. Louis jail, officers repeatedly pepper-sprayed people on suicide watch, including several times because a person wanted to keep on their underwear, according to the use-of-force reports. Grid has filed a public records request for a copy of the jail’s suicide watch policy, but has not yet received it. From the use-of-force reports, it appears that when a person is placed on suicide watch, officers direct them to fully undress and put on a blanket-type gown, known as a suicide gown.
In January 2021, a person undressed for suicide watch but attempted to hide a pair of long johns, according to a use-of-force report documenting the incident. The officer ordered him to hand over the clothes. When the person refused, the officer sprayed him.
The detained person told a supervisor who investigated the incident that “he did not want to be naked.” The supervisor concluded that “the force used was necessary.”
In February 2021, an incarcerated person told the nurse he felt suicidal and was placed on suicide watch. When he refused to take off his undergarments, he was pepper-sprayed.
Afterward, the detained person told a supervisor, “I should be able to keep my boxers on suicide watch.” The supervisor concluded the force was “justifiable” because the detainee “was placed on full suicide for his safety and he refused to take off his underwear.”
More recently, in January of this year, when a man placed on “suicide watch/detox,” refused to wear the gown, an officer sprayed him. He later told the supervisor investigating the incident, “I don’t want to be in no dress.”
Officers also sprayed people for exhibiting apparent signs of mental illness or distress, like banging their head on the cell door or spreading feces, according to the use-of-force reports.
In January, a man held in the jail’s medical unit told officers that he had been vomiting and needed more food. They refused, and he flooded his cell. When he was directed to stop, the man said, “I got voices in my head. I’m hungry. Y’all not listening to me,” according to the use-of-force report. An officer then sprayed twice through the cell’s chuck hole.
People with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to being pepper-sprayed, according to the ACLU’s Fathi.
“Their illness may make them unable to comply with staff directives,” said Fathi. “Their illness might make them behave in ways that are annoying to staff.”
Last year, a man named Jamal Sutherland, who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, died at a South Carolina jail after deputies tased and pepper-sprayed him because he had allegedly refused to leave his cell for a bond hearing. According to local news outlet WCBD-TV, Sutherland had been arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge that stemmed from an incident that occurred at a mental health facility where he was a patient.
In April, the parents of a woman who had been detained in the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, sued the county and jail employees for repeatedly pepper-spraying their daughter for not following officers’ orders, even though, they allege, her mental illness prevented her from doing so. After just over two months at the jail, she was transferred to a psychiatric hospital. In Oregon, an audit of the Multnomah County jails released this year found that deputies were about nine times more likely to use force — including pepper spray — against detainees with mental illness than those without mental illness.
Are jails violating their own policies?
The St. Louis plaintiffs’ lawyers argue that the use-of-force reports show staff are not following the jail’s policy, which states that officers are to use chemical agents to “protect themselves or others from imminent danger, prevent escapes and willful destruction of facility property.” Officers are only permitted to spray into a cell when a person is being disruptive — “i.e., banging on the wall” — if a supervisor approves the action and it is justified in writing.
But according to the use-of-force reporters, officers at the St. Louis jail pepper-sprayed people for banging on their cell doors to request things like a blanket, a mattress or help with the phones.
Last year, a jail nurse reported that a detained person, identified in the report as male, had “silicone fake breasts he had stuffed in a bra,” according to the use-of-force report. An officer gave him “several directives to give us the contraband.” He refused, threw water underneath the door and attempted to take screws out of the bed. A second officer sprayed pepper spray through the cell’s chuck hole.
The detained person later told the supervisor investigating the incident that, “he did not want to give up his pasties, that he needed them and did not understand why he had to give them up.”
The supervisor concluded that the use of pepper spray was necessary “in order to get [the detained person] to give up the contraband.”
The reports show, said Maureen Hanlon, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, that the officers use pepper spray “at the drop of a hat.”
As the groups’ litigation slowly winds its way through the courts, the plaintiffs’ legal team says officers continue to jeopardize the detainees’ health and safety. In a statement to Grid through his attorneys, Darnell Rusan, who has been at the jail since 2020, said, “This feels like one of the worst situations I have ever experienced in my life.”
Rusan has been charged, but not convicted of a crime. In St. Louis, for those denied bond and jailed pretrial, they’re detained for an average of 386 days, according to a report by Freedom Community Center, which runs a court watching program.
According to the complaint, officers have “maced” Rusan, who has epileptic seizures, several times. (Note: The complaint uses the word “mace,” but likely means pepper spray.) Last year, an officer sprayed him while he was naked and then locked him in the spray-filled room for hours. “I pray to God for the strength and support to make a change in this facility through this lawsuit,” he said.
Incarcerated people in jails throughout the country are left to ask the courts to protect their rights, a slow, uncertain process that occurs only after they’ve been harmed, Fathi noted. Prisoners are protected by the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, but he explained, the “Constitution isn’t self-executing.”
“You need someone to bring a lawsuit to enforce it,” he continued. “Given the very limited ability of incarcerated people to vindicate their constitutional rights in court, that’s almost an illusory remedy.”
An earlier version of this article was unclear about which jail faced litigation. This version has been updated.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article. This story has been updated.