What you need to know:
- Allegations of black mold, flooding, and unsanitary eating and sleeping conditions at the Craighead County Detention Center led to a series of lawsuits by 13 prisoners between March and April.
- Despite consistent documentation of crumbling infrastructure and water leaks by inspectors, and resources to fix the problem, the poor conditions appear to be “business as usual.”
- The conditions at the Arkansas jail are far from anomalous; they reflect a pattern of toxic environments in jails and prisons across the country, part of what Sean Swain, an activist and prisoner in Ohio, calls the “toxification machine.”
- Nevertheless, prisoners are largely hindered from successful lawsuits against jails and prisons, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which creates a “Kafka-esque” bureaucracy for prisoners seeking better treatment and living conditions while incarcerated.
The last time Billie Jo Cossey was incarcerated in an Arkansas jail, she lost her child. She complained of stomach pains, using blankets to soak up blood hemorrhaging from her vagina while pleading for medical care. Unable to access the help she needed, Cossey suffered a miscarriage. Almost three years later, in the spring of 2019, the 24-year-old was pregnant again, and jailed just a few counties over in the Craighead County Detention Center (CCDC) in northeast Arkansas. She was accused of walking out of a Walmart with a loaded shopping cart with her husband, Joseph Cossey.
At the CCDC, discolored water pools on the floors of the living areas near exposed electrical cords. Mold allegedly blooms in thin mattresses, on food trays, and across showering surfaces. The roof above the inmates’ heads is quite literally falling apart. Billie Jo feared she would lose another baby to another jail.
In what appears to be a coordinated wave of lawsuits, 13 incarcerated people, including the Cosseys, launched cases without legal representation against Craighead County Sheriff Marty Boyd and other CCDC administrators in March and April 2019.
“We are clearly being housed like animals,” wrote one plaintiff, Lane Mikel Fears, in an initial complaint, “and surely something can be done."
Inspections of the CCDC, like those conducted annually by the Criminal Detention Facility Review Committee (CDFRC) to assess compliance with State Standards, appear to support Fears’ complaint: the conditions are anomalous, mismanagement is to fault, and the situation can be ameliorated. But it also appears that these conditions are business as usual, as years of lawsuits and CDFRC reports documented. While those previously jailed at CCDC have sought judicial intervention, the derelict jail continues to be toxic to those it incarcerates.
The remedies outlined in the lawsuits are simple. Mattresses, bathrooms, plates, and food trays that aren't infested with black mold and mildew. Drinking water that isn't the color of “asphalt,” as three plaintiffs described it. A roof above their head that doesn't crumble chunks of plaster and pour water on them when it rains. And proper medical care for respiratory issues, headaches, back pains, and dizziness––conditions that particularly affect inmates who are pregnant, like Billie Jo, or have pre-existing conditions, like Andrew Scott Loudermilk and Marcus Warren.
Scalawag was unable to connect with the plaintiffs by the time of publication.
The infrastructure of the derelict jail constructed in 1989 is deteriorating, according to the filed complaints, CDFRC inspections, and maintenance work logs obtained through a public records request. “During times of heavy and/or steady rainwater, moisture collects” in both the male and female housing areas, so much so that ten buckets were spread throughout the facility to collect water from “ceiling leaks” in February, a month that saw record-level rainfall, according to maintenance logs. The leaks could be due to the fact that “roof areas, and like aspects are aging out of service,” as the inspector noted. Three of the plantiffs complained that “[w]hen it rains water comes in from outside flooding cells [...] and we have to soak it up with our towels.” The Cosseys and Cary Wayne Peden complained that “asphalt colored water [drips] down on us while we eat.”
Excessive moisture can fester microbes, like the microfungus attributed to black mold, which emit toxic compounds into indoor air, according to 2009 World Health Organization guidelines. The toxins can exacerbate allergies and asthma, in addition to weakening the immune system.
Despite state standards requiring “clean and adequate bedding,” plaintiffs Loudermilk and Warren described their mats as “nothing more than foam stuffing that is constantly being taken and given back with black mold and mildew all inside and out of them [with] no vinyl covers at all,” while plaintiff Timothy Martin Williams wrote that he is “sleeping basically on black mold and steel.” Other plaintiffs described the conditions as “a painful way to sleep” that are causing them “all [to] have lower back pain now and shoulder pain as well as difficulty breathing.”
"Pussies, don’t come to jail," a CCDC correctional officer reportedly remarked in response to inmates’ requests for cleaning supplies, according to plaintiffs Marshall Irvin Williams, Edward Euell, and James Coleman. "Pull your tampons out and be real inmates, little bitches quit complaining."
Joseph*, a source who is familiar with the conditions at the jail and requested anonymity, citing concern for his employment security, confirmed the plaintiffs’ account of the sleeping accommodations. A “number of people” formerly incarcerated at CCDC told him they were given “little old pads––not much of a mattress,” that jail administrators “keep it freezing,” and that some inmates “don't even got a blanket.”
Just a few weeks before the initial complaints were filed, CCDC was “in the process of acquiring new mats,” according to CDFRC’s 2019 inspection. Blaming the problem on property damage instead of poor sanitation, CCDC Assistant Administrator Todd Harrell warned in a memo obtained by Scalawag that “in the near future we will begin taking up all issued mats,” which would “continue until we feel that the counties [sic] property and money paid by the taxpayers of this county can be treated with the respect they deserve.” This means, according to the memo, that detainees “will be required to sleep on the bunk, as is, with no bed mat”––which is simply a metal frame.
All defendants and their lawyer declined Scalawag’s request to comment due to pending litigation. Jail Administrator Bowers, Sheriff Boyd, Administrative Assistant Toni Raymond, and Todd Harrell denied all allegations in their responses to the lawsuits.
Black Mold: Here, There, and Everywhere
Allegations of toxic mold and other hazardous conditions at Craighead County Detention Center are nothing new. Skye Burns, a resident of Jonesboro, Arkansas, accused administrators of failing to maintain the “upkeep” of the jail, listing conditions in his February 2018 complaint that are nearly-identical to those alleged this year. His claims of “[m]old & mildew in living areas/cells,” “inadequate mattresses,” “leaking cielings [sic] and windows,” “showers [that] haven’t been cleaned,” not receiving “proper cleaning supplies so that we can keep our living areas clean,” as well as “no heat,” and “no sheets for the beds,” suggest that problematic conditions date back to at least Fall 2017 when he arrived.
Burns’s lawsuit was dismissed; the judge described his complaint as “merely a list of purported deficiencies in the jail rather than an allegation that Defendants have been deliberately indifferent to an excessive risk to his health or safety.” Burns was offered the opportunity to amend the complaint, but failed to do so in the time allowed, effectively closing the case.
“We are clearly being housed like animals,” wrote one plaintiff, Lane Mikel Fears, in an initial complaint, “and surely something can be done."
Denver Lee Herbert complained in 2015 that “there is black mold everywhere within the barracks” housing him, such that “it’s gotten hard for me to breath [sic].” He sought medical care for “coughing up black-mold [sic].” But despite numerous claims by inmates, the CDFRC has never confirmed the presence of black mold at the jail. Sheriff Marty Boyd, a defendant in the Herbert case, cited the findings of a March 2016 CDFRC inspection, which in his counsel’s words, “did not result in any violations or find evidence of unsanitary conditions, in particular, ‘black mold’ in the detention center.”
However, CDFRC is not authorized to conduct the inspections necessary to identify black mold. Though the oversight body is able to note whether “discoloration or possible discoloration is present and or mold or possible mold concerns exist,” commission investigators are not trained to verify black mold and do not possess the necessary equipment to do so, said CDFRC coordinator Sterling Penix. He also stressed that the published standards––to which the agency must strictly adhere––do not include “black mold,” or “mold” in general.
Civil suits alleging dangerous-levels of black mold are further challenged because the fungus itself is considered a nebulous hazard by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is unclear about the amount of black mold that could trigger negative health impacts.
Something more than “lay opinion” is needed “to prove the presence [of]mold that is hazardous to human health,” said Dustin McDaniel, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that collaborates with the activist group Fight Toxic Prisons. But one thing is for sure: many incarcerated people report black mold and its perceived negative health implications. “For every legal challenge or journalistic investigation into black mold, we see exponentially more letters from prisoners across the country elaborating on chronic mold problems that are going unaddressed,” said Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News.
Why are jails so toxic?
"Yes we are criminals but do we not deserve a proper mattress that is sanitary and a rack that is black mold free?”, several plaintiffs questioned, in an April 15 addendum to their complaints.
CCDC can afford to improve conditions. The jail charges each defendant convicted of a Class A misdemeanor or a felony $20, putting the revenue into the County Detention Facility Special Fund, "to be used exclusively for the maintenance, operation, and capital expenditures of a county jail." Additionally, all defendants are charged an additional fee (up to $20) that goes towards the Jail Operation and Maintenance Special Fund, for covering “construction, maintenance and operation of the county jail; purchase and maintenance of jail equipment,” among other things. The county had a total revenue of $103,952 in these two funds combined in 2017, while jail fees were the second largest source of revenue for the county ($2,591,659).
For Sean Swain, a prisoner incarcerated at a supermax facility in Ohio, the toxicity generated by a derelict facility is not a matter of budget mismanagement. Rather, it’s the very nature of carceral space––to “poison the human community,” to “create deliberate harm.”
Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer with Fight Toxic Prisons, agrees. “Because the criminalized people sent into jails, prisons and detention centers are generally viewed as disposable,” Tsolkas said, “so concerns such as conditions of confinement or quality of air and water in and around prisons are not taken seriously.”
Swain calls prisons “toxification machines,” producing “psychological and social toxicity on purpose, by design.” By this, he means that the confinement to a “dead space” of concrete with few resources, like educational opportunity or personal growth, traumatizes––or ‘toxifies’––incarcerated people.
Swain calls prisons “toxification machines,” producing “psychological and social toxicity on purpose, by design.”
The trauma generated by the toxification machine is heavily racialized, with Black people as its most disproportionate targets. On June 11, 134 of 290 people (46 percent) detained at the CCDC were listed as Black, according to data pulled from the Inmate Roster. Yet the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that only 16.2 percent of Craighead County is Black.
Three men from the 13 lawsuits – Coleman, Marshall Irvin Williams, and Euell–claim the conditions and staff negligence to be “a violation of our civil rights and can easily be displayed as racism.” According to these three men, Sheriff Boyd is well aware of “officers that continually threaten black inmates.” Because of this, some “black inmates are afraid [of asking] any officers for anything due to excissive [sic] comments by his staff,” they write–basically, “fear of a racial conflict.”
The court dismissed the alleged verbal abuse and racial bias on the grounds that it did not rise to the “level of a ‘wanton act of cruelty’ such that the inmate is in fear of ‘instant and unexpected death at the whim of his allegedly bigoted custodian’,” nor did the plaintiffs state sufficient facts for it to qualify as an equal protections claim.
Their attempts to change the facility’s conditions and hold the administration accountable for their alleged neglect is hindered by the defendants’ use of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which makes successful lawsuits against government correctional staff nearly impossible to achieve...
The social toxification theorized by Swain could also be growing in CCDC as its inmate population swells. On most days, the housing areas of the jail are “near or at full capacity,” according to the 2019 CDFRC report––leading administrators to resort to confining people suited for general population to ‘detoxification’ and observation cells designated for people who are intoxicated or ‘require’ more attention. CCDC barely has space for outdoor activities, exercise, and other programming.
Amidst this overcrowding, a deadly fight broke out in April 2019 between two incarcerated men, Little Joe Wilson and Marcus Gentry. Video footage of the fight was released in late May, revealing a lengthy brawl that was met, sans a few bystander interventions, with seemingly apathetic observation.
Escaping the Toxification Machine
As mostly pre-trial detainees, the 13 people confined to Craighead County Detention Center have trickled out of the jail. Meanwhile, their lawsuits flicker out, too.
Their attempts to change the facility’s conditions and hold the administration accountable for their alleged neglect is hindered by the defendants’ use of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which makes successful lawsuits against government correctional staff nearly impossible to achieve; the law requires that plaintiffs first exhaust all administrative remedies before going to court. Grievances become entangled in a “Kafkaesque” bureaucracy, as one federal judge described it.
Facing these limits, Tsolkas says that a broader array of tactics, like “combining organizing with outside activity including lawsuits, protests, lobbying and social media,” could prove to be a more “effective strategy.” But being thrown into a cage for weeks to months at a time often limits inmates’ abilities to launch such a campaign. People may not be equipped or even want to take the lead on such a draining effort. And now, most of the plaintiffs no longer need that. Only two remain behind bars: Marshall Irvin Williams and Andrew Scott Loudermilk. The others have made it out of the sick building, and the toxification machine remains in place.