In the last five years, there have been at least 15 jail-related lawsuits filed against St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office, which has spent more than $300,000 on the legal matters, according to documents released by the county under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The county has spent about $305,500 during the time period responding to the lawsuits. Of that amount, the county has only spent $18,900 on settlements, according to the documents.
The lawsuits in the analysis include complaints against jail officials, as well as complaints from inmates of being forced to sleep on the floor, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, among other things.
Reducing the number of lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s office for conditions in the jail is one of the pitches being put forward ahead of Tuesday’s vote on a sales tax increase meant to bolster public safety.
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The 1 percent sales tax, which will sunset after 12 years if approved, would bring in about $22 million a year to the county. Of that amount, the county plans to set aside $6 million a year in order to pay for a jail expansion and renovation, as well as interest on any bonds for the project.
The sales tax would not apply to groceries, medication or titled vehicles.
Leonard C. Cotton filed two lawsuits involving the county jail. One alleging excessive force and one alleging denial of hygiene products and unsanitary shower conditions.
The documents say Cotton did not suffer a significant long-term injury
Both cases are still pending, but the county, which has asked for a summary judgment in both cases, has spent more than $28,000 fighting the lawsuits.
According to the documents, the county agreed to a settlement in only four of the 15 cases.
In 2015, Andrew McKinnon filed a lawsuit against the county saying he was forced to sleep on the floor for 10 months and had to endure inhumane conditions.
In September 2016, attorneys for McKinnon discussed with the county the possibility of settling the case before either side incurred the cost of depositions. The county offered $1,000, and McKinnon’s attorney countered with $1,200.
“Given the economic balance of cost of settlement versus the cost of defense, we agreed to accept the plaintiff’s counter-demand,” county documents say.
Sheriff Rick Watson has said he would want to expand the jail to have space for 675 beds and the improvements at the jail would reduce the amount of lawsuits filed against the county for conditions at the facility.
The county is self-insured up to $250,000, Watson has said.
“Every claim under $250,000, the county pays it. That’s county taxpayers paying it,” Watson has said. “Everybody thinks some insurance company is paying it. No, your tax dollars are paying it. Either you could build on to the jail, increase our capacity, or you could pay it out in lawsuits.”