This project was completed with the support of a grant from Columbia University's Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures.
The St. Louis County Jail in Clayton.
The troubled St. Louis County jail has been rocked by scandal in recent years including inmate deaths, accusations of excessive tasing and mistreatment of inmates, and leadership changes amid accusations of a toxic workplace. It seems many of those problems persist and are allegedly the fault of a “family” of St. Louis County jail administrators who stymie reform at the institution.
In May, Phillip Duvall resigned from the St. Louis County Justice Services Advisory Board — the third board member to do so in 14 months — stating that “the family” was blocking the board's efforts to hold bad actors in the jail to account.
Another individual closely involved with the jail described “the family” as a "rump group" of employees interested in preserving power and blocking reform efforts by St. Louis County Department of Justice Director Scott Anders and the advisory board.
A lawyer, who has sued the jail on behalf of inmates in the past, referred to the family as a "power clique" all about protecting their jobs.
"They're above accountability. No discipline is meted out to them," this lawyer tells the RFT
. "It's like how the mafia has protection rackets. It's like an internal protection racket, where if you're part of this group, you're internally protected from discipline."
Duvall has provided more details about how "the family" enables inmate abuse and how on at least one occasion has protected a supervisor who scheduled guards to work shifts during times when the supervisor planned to sleep with their wives.
Naked inmate tased nine times
When Kimberly Caves went to pick up her son Cameron from the county jail on July 12 last year, she immediately noticed the burn marks all over his body. He had burns behind his ear and on his back and arms. The burns came in pairs from the Taser prongs. "Like snake bites almost," Kimberly says. They documented the wounds with photos.
The 27-year-old Cameron had spent about two weeks in the St. Louis County jail after being arrested by Florissant police on a stalking charge. Caves says her son suffers from schizophrenia and bi-polar.
When Caves asked her son how he'd been burned, he said that he'd been in county jail for about a week when on July 9, because of a mental health episode, he was sent to the medical pod. He was stripped naked then tased a dozen times by corrections staff.
Outraged, Caves emailed and wrote letters to everyone she could about what had happened, from then-Justice Services director Doug Burris to County Executive Sam Page to U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush (D-St. Louis).
"What the jail didn't bank on was my son having a mother who gave a damn," Caves tells the RFT
Courtesy Kimberly Caves
Cameron Caves' family says he was excessively tased while in St. Louis County Jail in July 2021.
In August, Caves got a meeting with Burris, who had been told by members of “the family” that Florissant police had been the ones who tased Cameron. That was the story he gave to Caves.
Caves didn't buy it. Why would her son lie to her about who had tased him? The jail was also accused of using a Taser on restrained inmates in 2020.
Later, a representative from the jail told Caves the same thing in a voicemail that was shared with the RFT
"Those nine marks on your son's back would not have happened from us," the representative says. "On July 20, when your son was arrested by Florissant police, they tased him...Those nine Taser marks you were describing all over your son's body have most likely come from Florissant PD."
Caves first saw the marks on her son’s body on July 12, but the jail was claiming that they came from an arrest that occurred eight days later.
Complicating matters was the fact that Cameron had been arrested for a second time by Florissant police on July 20 and a Taser had been used in that arrest, but it wasn't enough to cause wounds all over Cameron's body, and it also happened a week and a half too late to be a valid explanation.
Caves continued to reach out to whomever she thought might be able to help and eventually got in touch with Duvall, who was then a member of the Justice Services Advisory Board.
Duvall says that some of the staff who tased Cameron were members of “the family,” and the fact that administration would blame another law enforcement agency for their wrongdoing shows the lengths “the family” goes to protect its own.
He and attorney Mark Pedroli collected dash cam and body cam video from Florissant police that accounted for the entirety of both of Cameron’s arrests. At no point was Cameron tased in the first arrest, Duvall says. So Florissant can't be blamed for the wounds on Cameron's body that Caves saw on July 12.
When Duvall describes the video of the second arrest conducted by Florissant on July 20, he describes a man who sounds traumatized.
"I give them kudos for that arrest," Duvall says. "They were very patient [but] Cameron wouldn't comply. When they started instructing him, he saw the officer pull the Taser out and [Cameron] started screaming, 'Don't tase me and beat me. Please don't beat me.'"
Ultimately, the police did tase Cameron. "Once, maybe two times," Duvall says, recalling the video he viewed.
Two weeks after the July 20 arrest on August 4, Cameron was still locked up in St. Louis County Jail, and was tased twice by corrections officers.
In September, Burris retired as director of the jail and was replaced by Scott Anders.
Duvall encouraged the new director to look into Cameron’s tasing incident. When Anders did, members of “the family” told him they'd investigated the corrections officers who had tased Cameron and found those officers acted appropriately. There was even paperwork to prove it.
However, the investigation had been into the August 4 incident when Cameron was tased twice. Officially, the tasing incident in July hadn't happened.
"His injuries and wounds were from a month prior," Duvall says. "They convoluted it all."
In essence, according to Duvall, “the family” told two separate lies to two different jail directors. First, they told Burris that Cameron’s injuries came from Florissant police. Second they told Anders that Caves' letter from July had been in reference to an incident that happened the following month, one which the jail had looked into and found to involve no wrongdoing.
However, the lies were exposed in the fall when Pedroli, the attorney who helped Duvall get the Florissant police arrest footage, sued for access to jail surveillance video during the time of the alleged July 9 attack.
On September 22, Pedroli, Caves and a representative from the jail watched surveillance video of the July incident.
The video showed several guards outside a cell shooting Tasers at Cameron inside.
"In the video you could see they were shooting him with a Taser through the food slot," Pedroli tells the RFT
. "They lit him up pretty bad."
Pedroli says that Cameron was tased multiple times even though he was locked in a cell.
Caves acknowledges that her son was refusing to comply with the corrections officers' order to come out, but she thinks their use of force was way out of proportion.
"There were maybe a dozen people outside, and they all went in on him," she says. "You could pretty much deduce that was where he got all those Taser marks from, all of them going in on him at one time."
"When I saw that, my heart just wanted to break," Caves adds, saying that from the way they were treating Cameron, "you would have thought he was a murderer."
Duvall says that despite photographic evidence of Cameron's burns and video evidence that correctional officers lied to jail administration, he still wasn't able to hold anyone to account. There was no way to do so because Duvall says they "were part of ‘the family.’"
"He knew the husband was going to be at work"
One of the strangest abuses of power Duvall says the family abetted involved a high-ranking jail supervisor using his scheduling authority to sleep with multiple subordinates' wives.
"He knew the husbands were going to be at work," Duvall says. "He would ensure that the male officers would be at work, and he would hook up with their wives."
Duvall says that when he first heard the story he thought it was just "tabloid trash."
But then this supervisor fathered a child with one of the subordinate's wives, breaking up the marriage. The husband reported the supervisor, but there was no investigation or repercussions because the supervisor was part of “the family.”
"Imagine [the guard] now working under a man who broke up his marriage," Duvall says.