Regarding the response letter from City Counselor Michael Garvin to the request for immediate access by local organizations to the City Justice Center, including my St. Louis City Public Defender office, language matters and informs. Mr. Garvin’s expression that the City “will indulge” those raising concerns lets our jailed population know that such cries for change and help will sometimes be tolerated, but never invited and certainly never listened to by City Hall. It is the language of the oppressor and master, not the wisdom of a leader.
The “unsupported allegations” cited in the City’s response consist of dozens upon dozens of first-hand accounts from those housed in our city jails regarding the conditions they have seen and experienced. ArchCity Defenders presented six of these stories through family members at a recent presentation. The attorneys at the public defender’s office have fielded countless more. And the ArchCity hotline, established to field such concerns, continues to see calls on a daily basis according to executive director Blake Strode.
The question now is whether we believe real and systemic problems exist, based on the numerous and consistent reports from those housed in the jails, or whether we believe the City’s response that every account has been fabricated.
This is bigger than just the happenings of Saturday, February 6. Our country has a strong history of ignoring or disbelieving the voices of the most vulnerable – the accused, the poor, immigrants - especially when they are people of color. To our leaders, these voices are not to be heard, only judged, dismissed, controlled, and suppressed. See mass incarceration, the war on drugs, neighborhood gentrification, COVID response and treatment, stop and frisk.
This is not the side of history we want to be on.
When news broke of the uprising on Saturday, February 6, our attorneys visited our clients with the goal of listening and investigating as to how they were doing. What we found and continue to find was outlined in the request sent to City Hall, information regarding safety and well-being that we continue to be concerned about.
We had hoped for swift access and movement, but our officials missed a critical time for investigation and action. Requests for immediate access by media, social justice organizations, and the public defender have been universally denied. The mayor’s Corrections Task Force does not have one member who represents individuals housed in the city jails in their state criminal matters, and no one meeting that description received an invitation to participate. This is not how transparency or effectiveness is achieved.
Why not now think differently?
A new study recently found that jail population across the U.S. dropped by nearly a quarter at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, mainly due to fewer people being booked. This according to the nonprofit MacArthur Foundation and City University of New York. Their findings? “We’ve seen no change in public safety outcomes,” said Reagan Daly of CUNY, one of the authors of the study. “There’s been no increase in crime. There’s been no increase in violent crime.”
This led St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell to state, “The evidence is clear. When you give individuals the support and resources they need, they offend at a lower rate.”
Does St. Louis City and the courts have the will and courage to attempt such a change? Are we so married to our carceral history, from slavery to the 13th Amendment and beyond, that we cannot separate what is tradition from what is effective? Are the words innocent until proven guilty intentions but not actions?
Perhaps the most telling part of the MacArthur findings as it pertains to the will of St. Louis power brokers was this: “The study found that the declines in population and bookings were more pronounced for white detainees.”
In a jail with broken locks and inconsistent water access, with no social visitation for nearly a year, with COVID 19 a real and present danger, and with no reason for hope regarding their bond or case status, an uprising occurred. They weren’t upset that their presidential candidate lost. They wanted some acknowledgement of their humanity and dignity.
If only they weren’t black and brown, maybe they could get an organic meal instead.
Matthew Mahaffey is the District Defender of the St. Louis City Trial Office of the Missouri State Public Defender.