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'Everything Around Me Is Crumbling': Disabled Man Sues St. Louis Jail, Says He Hasn’t Showered In 162 Days
"Just because we’re incarcerated, we’re still human,” Anthony Tillman said.
A disabled man who's incarcerated at a St. Louis jail says he hasn't showered for more than five months because the facility lacks a functioning wheelchair accessible shower.
For 162 days, Anthony Tillman, 40, has been forced to use a “bucket,” “rag,” and “lukewarm” water to wash himself at St. Louis City Justice Center, according to his lawyers.
Tillman, who uses a wheelchair, is paralyzed from the waist down following a 2017 shooting. He hasn’t properly bathed since his arrest in early October because the dilapidated facilities are a hazard, he said.
“They gave me a basin to wash myself with,” Tillman told Oxygen.com in an exclusive jailhouse phone interview. “You feel nasty. Just imagine washing up in a bucket — I can’t walk.”
As a result, Tillman’s toenails are falling out. His body is covered in sores. Most nights, he said, he sobs himself to sleep in his jail cell bunk.
“You kind of feel like the world is falling down, everything around me is crumbling,” Tillman said. “Plenty of nights, I just lay in my bunk and I just cry wondering why.”
The "cruel" and “dehumanizing” conditions have put Tillman at “grave” risk of infection and have traumatized him, his lawyers said.
“He’s been suffering for a number of months due to that neglect,” attorney Blake Strode told Oxygen.com. “The toll is both physical and psychological. He has some wounds on his body that have to be cleaned effectively. They would give him a bucket and a rag and suggest he should suffice with that.”
The Missouri father is now suing the City of St. Louis for denying him “meaningful access” to the jail’s showers.
“He has made countless pleas to gain access to a shower,” the lawsuit, obtained by Oxygen.com, stated. “In turn, CJC staff have refused his requests, ignored his grievances, and wholly failed to accommodate his disability. Mr. Tillman’s request is simple. … He wants to take a shower.”
The lawsuit demands the city provide a “detailed plan” to build out a wheelchair-accessible shower at the jail within 21 days and to provide Tillman an interim nursing staff assistant to help him bathe. Tillman is also seeking monetary damages as a result of “harm” he’s endured while incarcerated.
St. Louis City Justice Center Superintendent Adrian Barnes and Commissioner Dale Glass of the St. Louis Division of Corrections are also named in the suit.
The lawsuit, brought forth by several legal advocacy groups on Tillman’s behalf, was filed against the City of St. Louis on March 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. It also argues the jail is in direct violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The basin-and-rag system leaves Mr. Tillman unable to reach and clean many of these affected areas, due to his paraplegia,” the lawsuit alleged. “Every day Mr. Tillman is denied access to a shower, he’s at risk of infections and serious harm.”
The St. Louis City Justice Center’s current wheelchair accessible shower consists of a ramp, a stabilizing bar, and a folding seat — or a transfer bench — that allows disabled prisoners to sit and self-bathe. But the current transfer bench, his lawyers said, is run-down, dangerous, and unable to support his weight.
Lifting himself from a wheelchair into the shower, given the jail’s current infrastructure, is already physically daunting — and excruciating — for Tillman, his legal team said.
“To use the shower, Mr. Tillman had to roll his wheelchair to the shower, attempt to sit up from his wheelchair holding the one bar, maneuver with one hand on the bar and the other hand pushing down the fold-down seat, and effectively allow his body to fall down into the seat,” the lawsuit stated.
Tillman is housed on the jail’s second-floor infirmary, alongside approximately 10 other prisoners in COVID quarantine. He's awaiting trial on domestic assault, child endangerment, property damage, and gun charges, court filings show. Tillman has a counsel status hearing scheduled for Friday in the case. He's pleaded not guilty to the charges.
During a previous incarceration, Tillman fell in that shower, cut himself, contracted sepsis, and was hospitalized after becoming “delirious," according to his lawyers.
“I tried to get into my wheelchair, I fell onto the ground and scratched my left buttock,” Tillman said. “It started off as a small little scratch but whatever was on the floor got into the bloodstream and it caused several wounds all over my body.”
Tillman refuses to use the jail’s shower again out of fear he’ll severely injure himself again.
“I’m not comfortable getting back into the same shower I fell and hurt myself,” he added.
In December 2020, he filed a grievance related to shower access and medical staff assistance and had his public defender send a letter to the jail's commissioner but said he hasn't received a response.
On Jan. 2, one nurse scolded Tillman after he begged her for help showering, according to the lawsuit.
“This is not a long-term care facility!” the corrections worker allegedly told him.
Tillman also accused jail nurses of refusing to change his catheter and leaving his medication outside his cell's chuckhole where he couldn't easily access it, the federal lawsuit stated. His legal team has filed an emergency restraining order against the city due the perceived urgency of Tillman's situation and the allegations contained in the civil case.
St. Louis city officials, however, flatly denied the city jail’s showers were in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Any suggestion that Mr. Tillman was refused access to a shower is incorrect,” City Counselor Mike Garvin told Oxygen.com on Friday.
Garvin said Tillman had been offered a cell with an accessible shower but “declined” because he’d “no longer have a cell all to himself.”
“Throughout his time in the City’s custody, Anthony Tillman has been provided the means to clean and bathe himself every day,” Garvin said. "Based on Mr. Tillman’s medical and hygienic needs, the medical professionals at CJC previously prescribed him a ‘bath-only’ treatment plan; they later cleared him to shower. Since then, Mr. Tillman has not requested the use of a wheelchair-accessible shower from the medical professionals, despite being informed of that option.”
On March 14, the City of St. Louis filed motions to dismiss the case.
"Plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies as required by PLRA [Prison Litigation Reform Act]," Garvin also wrote in a memo in support of the city's motion to dismiss, which was also obtained by Oxygen.com. "Plaintiff’s failure to exhaust demonstrates that he is not likely to succeed on the merits of his claim."
A federal judge is expected to hear the case on Wednesday.
In 2017, Tillman was critically wounded in a shooting. The bullet that paralyzed him is still lodged in his back, according to civil rights attorney, Emanuel Powell, who is representing him in the civil case. Prior to his arrest last year, the St. Louis dad was still adjusting to life without his legs.
“You have to learn how to walk all over again,” Tillman described. “It’s like a baby being able to walk. You have to have people to help you. I was told by doctors I would walk again. But I have to have consistent therapy.”
In the years since, Tillman has undergone intensive rehabilitative therapy and has received in-home care to assist him with everything from grocery shopping to grooming himself.
“To be incarcerated and to not have this help, it hurts,” he said.
Tillman recounted gradually building up leg and nerve strength in the years since being shot — but said he’s sharply regressed in pre-trial detention. The jail, unsurprisingly, he said, lacks the “proper equipment” or space to facilitate his rehabilitation. Tillman now fears he may be permanently wheelchair bound if his incarceration persists. His legs have now "atrophied," according to his his lawyers.
“Every day that I spend here without physical therapy I feel like the chances of me ever walking again are slim,” he said. "My legs are much weaker than they were six months ago.”
Prior to being disabled, Tillman, a father of two, mixed paint and assembled pick-up trucks at a local General Motors plant, he said. Last week was his 40th birthday.
"Just because we’re incarcerated, we’re still human,” Tillman said. “[We] shouldn’t be treated inhumane."
He's speaking out against the jail's conditions in the hopes he can help improve the quality of life of other disabled inmates, as well.
"They shouldn’t have to go through what I went through," he added. "Don’t just overlook us and treat us like we’re nothing, you know, just because we’re not able to walk and stand up. Just treat us fair. Something needs to be done. It’s just getting swept under the rug."
In recent months, a series of inmate revolts have broken out at the St. Louis City Justice Center related to conditions during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Video of a full-blown riot last month captured a number of prisoners, clad in yellow jumpsuits, leaning out of a smashed window several floors up in the facility.
“The conditions and treatment they’re being exposed to are just really awful and really inhumane,” Strode said.
Strode also serves as executive director for ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy nonprofit, which has closely monitored the situation in St. Louis’ jails. He said the city and facility’s “inability and unwillingness” to address the deteriorating jail conditions has triggered a “pre-trial detention crisis.”
“We’ve had an increasingly desperate situation in both of our local jails over the past year,” Strode said. “People are sitting in jail for months on end without having their day in court. "