Riverfront Times
Close

Captain Was Fired After Complaining About Workhouse Conditions, Lawsuit Says

Sarah Fenske Sep 4, 2018 6:49 AM
COURTESY OF ELAD GROSS
A former captain at St. Louis' notorious Workhouse has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and five superiors, saying he was fired because he complained about the conditions there.

Melvin Diggs started at the Medium Security Institution (better known as the Workhouse) as a corrections officer in 1989, and eventually rose to captain. By 2017, he was one of the facility's longest serving officers.

But he was not one to suffer its hellish conditions quietly, says his attorney, Elad Gross. Diggs frequently complained about what he witnessed on site, including mold, rodent infestations, dangerously hot or cold temperatures, and the lack of adequate nutrition and hydration for inmates. He not only made his own complaints, but encouraged both other employees and inmates to write down theirs, Gross says.


But in April 2017, Diggs learned he would face discipline for failing to properly document an incident involving another employee's use of force. He says he did fill out the proper paperwork — he believed command staff was using the matter as a pretext to get rid of him. He grew anxious and depressed, and ended up taking leave. Two days after he came back from leave, in July 2017, he was escorted from the jail and, eventually, fired.

Last week, Diggs filed a federal lawsuit, alleging he was retaliated against for exercising his rights under the First Amendment and for exercising his right to take leave.

The timing of Diggs' termination strips him of the retirement benefits he was less than two years away from qualifying for. And it came despite several colleagues who testified at a subsequent civil service hearing that he had "an excellent reputation," according to the lawsuit.

Diggs was fired, says attorney Gross, on the strength of a single witness, Dale Glass. Glass testified that, during a conversation he had with Diggs in July 2017, Diggs had threatened to "shoot up the place." Diggs vehemently denies making such a statement.

At a pre-termination hearing, the lawsuit says, it became clear that "the only evidence against Captain Diggs was Defendant Glass' statement" — there was no "police report, witness interview statements, recordings or other documentation" supporting the allegation or the decision to terminate. At the civil service commission hearing, according to the lawsuit, coworkers testified that "they had never heard Captain Diggs make violent statements. They further stated that they would find allegations that he did make a violent statement to be unbelievable."

Says Gross, "This case has a lot of implications for the residents of the city of St. Louis. This is a problem when you have folks supervising the Workhouse who aren't taking responsibility for what's going on there and aren't fixing conditions we know are troubling. When they don't take responsibility, and they terminate the people trying to fix the problem, it causes a whole lot of problems."

Koran Addo, a spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said the city would have no comment.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com