Three former inmates at the St. Clair County Jail received $3,500 apiece in a settlement stemming from a federal lawsuit alleging poor living conditions at the jail.
Floyd Robinson, Timothy J. Headrick and Myron Barber first filed the lawsuit in July 2011 when they were being held in the jail while awaiting trials on felony charges. The county doesn't admit any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement, which was finalized in June. The agreement was only made public after a News-Democrat request under the Freedom of Information Act.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said the settlement was agreed to because it was cheaper than the legal cost to fight in court.
"A lot of times if we pay an attorney to fight this it is going to cost up to $10,000 or we can settle it for $2,500. Is it cheaper? Yes, but I have a different school of thought. I say you beat them and then they won't come back to do it again," Watson said.
The three inmates alleged a host of grievances in the lawsuit, including overcrowding, sleeping on the floor, foul odor of human waste, small amount of food per serving, inadequate access to a law library, no outdoor recreation, insects, mice, paint peeling off walls, and denial of cleaning materials for toilets and sinks. The inmates originally sought $100 million for alleged violations of their constitutional rights.
While state officials believe the jail is able to house 418 inmates, the 44-year-old building regularly holds more detainees. Between mid-December and mid-January, the jail averaged 504 inmates a day.
Five other inmates at the jail have filed federal lawsuits in the past year against the county alleging similar complaints of poor conditions.
Watson said a proposed $37 million expansion of the county jail would render future lawsuits moot.
"The root of the issue is if we get this overcrowding addressed they have no reason to file suit. That's what the root of the whole issue is," Watson said. "That's the other thing people don't realize when we're talking about overcrowding -- the county settling lawsuits. We house them here for awhile and give them a check when they leave. I don't like it, and as a taxpayer in St. Clair County I don't like it."
County leaders are asking voters to approve a new sales tax to fund the expansion. A referendum on the March 18 ballot will seek a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax for every $100 in merchandise purchased in the county.
The proposed tax is expected to generate up to $5 million annually. It includes a sunset provision ending the tax after 25 years. The proposal would not tax groceries, medicine and medical supplies.
Watson encourages residents to vote in favor of the proposal saying it ensured the expansion was "as efficient and effective as possible."
"We have to be sure property owners get the message who may vote against it because it's a tax," Watson said. "We're going to get these cases in federal court and we'll get a federal mandate. I want to be sure we can do this and everybody pays for it, not just homeowners in St. Clair County."
Litigation can prompt federal judges to order local jails taken over by the federal government, such as the federal consent decree imposed upon the Cook County Jail in 1974. At the state level, jail inspectors have continually warned the Department of Corrections may petition the Illinois Attorney General to force the county to address housing conditions at the jail.
Watson said law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors and public defenders have been working hard to relieve an overloaded court system.
"It's called the wheel of justice. Any one stop gets bogged down and it stops up the whole system," Watson said. "Everybody is working toward that goal now. I think we have a good thing going. We just need a place to put these inmates. We definitely do not want to be writing them a check."
Robinson, 56, is serving a 10-year prison sentence at Lawrence Correction Center for escaping custody of law enforcement and theft. He was previously convicted of home invasion, aggravated battery, felony aggravated criminal sexual assault, escaping from a penal institution, armed robbery and burglary, according to records with the state Department of Corrections.
Barber, 49, is serving a six-year prison sentence at Menard Correctional Center for aggravated battery with a firearm -- a charge related to shooting a person in the neck. He was previously convicted of possession of a control substance, theft, burglary and firearm-related offenses.
Headrick, 20, was sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in prison for armed robbery. In October, he was transferred back to St. Clair County Jail from Menard Correctional Center to await a new trial after he appealed his conviction. The state's Appellate Court voided his plea agreement because Headrick's 14-year sentence was below the required minimum sentence of 21 years.
Headrick filed a separate federal lawsuit against the county in December alleging strip searches at the jail violated his constitutional rights. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit nine days after it was filed. He has filed court documents stating his intention to appeal the judge's decision.
Other federal lawsuits filed in the past year against St. Clair County by inmates alleging poor conditions at the jail include:
* D'Marco McClatchery and Harold Ivy filed separate lawsuits on Monday, alleging safety and sanitation issues.
* Antoine Baker and Cory Bradley filed separate lawsuits Dec. 18, alleging conditions at the jail subjected them to "cruel and unusual punishment."
* Stanley Chairs filed a lawsuit in April alleging conditions at the jail caused him health problems.
The News-Democrat reported Thursday that the county settled lawsuits with three other former inmates who claimed they were beaten by guards while being held in the jail. The county gave each up to $2,000 to settle instead of having to fight the suits in court.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.