When I first saw the images of three gaping openings at the City Justice Center, I saw them as possible escape routes. If I was one of the detainees who knocked out the windows on Feb. 6 in protest of conditions, I think I would’ve jumped for safety and supported the demands from an unknown location. At least I would be safe from COVID-19 and live to fight another day.
Those nearly 120 or so detainees weren’t interested in escape. They needed the attention of the public to hear their plight and bring some relief to the wretched situation, sadly reminiscent of jail conditions under dictators of repressive regimes. Their cries for help extended way past the St. Louis region and were heard around the world.
We can say with some assurance these detainees weren’t interested in escape. You know the locks that officials reported as being jammed by jail residents to get out of their cells to “riot”? These have been faulty for a while and to the knowledge of most inside the jail. At any given time, detainees could’ve taken advantage of the situation.
A task force was recently convened by the mayor to investigate. This appears to many to be more about public relations than public solutions. Partly, this is because Mayor Lyda Krewson is out of office after the April general election. The other part is because her administration has not shown leadership on issues such as the pandemic and criminal justice for the last four years.
Such a task force would have been critical about a year ago, when the criminal justice system would ultimately collide with the coronavirus pandemic, which has created extraordinary circumstances that require extraordinary measures.
The mayor, the governor and the president can use executive powers to temporarily cut through statutory and legislative barriers that prevent us from getting to humane and holistic goals in the face of global pandemic.
Feb. 6 was the third attempt by Justice Center detainees to get the attention of policy makers. The other two attempts were covered up by Commissioner Dale Glass, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and the mayor with guarantees that everything was under control. They were not. Obviously.
Several groups are working with detainees and their families as part of their missions. Their levels of involvement have intensified since the virus reared its ugly head inside these correctional facilities operated with our tax dollars.
On both the state and local levels, CDC guidelines are not being followed, and caged men and women are sitting ducks for the deadly virus. Implications are that detainees are not human and have no rights.
Remember, most of the detainees are awaiting trial and have not been convicted — innocent until proven otherwise.
Detainees who participated in the three protests should receive immunity. Many are now facing retaliation by being subjected to even more inhumane conditions. What happens to those who ignored the dangerous situation for months until it erupted into property damage and bodily injuries?
The City Justice Center situation is characteristic of the racist systems that see Black bodies as subhuman. What detainees deserve is humane treatment and a right to a speedy trial. They are being denied that and more.
The conditions at the Justice Center and the Workhouse are not the sole responsibilities of the detainees, their loved ones and a handful of social justice groups.
This is one of the serious problems plaguing St. Louis. Issues, like our neighborhoods, have been racialized and marginalized. This allows them to be quietly and comfortably pushed to the side and ignored.
Krewson’s days as mayor are numbered, but we still have a city to manage and grow.
On April 6, St. Louis voters will elect the next mayor. This person must be a mayor who doesn’t believe pitting interests and exploiting differences in the best way to lead.
If we don’t embark upon collectively building a more racially-just and equitable city, St. Louis will always be projected in the national news for all the wrong reasons.