Twice in the past week, inmates at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis refused to return to their cells. On New Year’s Day, the second incident, correctional officers used tear gas against the inmates who stayed outside their cells beyond scheduled recreational time.
Following each protest, groups of inmates were transferred to the St. Louis Medium Security Institution — the Workhouse — which had been slated to be closed Dec. 31. Fifty-six people were transferred from the Justice Center to the Workhouse on Dec. 29, followed by 45 on Jan. 1.
The Workhouse has been subject to scrutiny by activist groups for several years due to the poor treatment of people inside, many of whom are being held pre-trial — incarcerated not because they have been convicted of a crime, but because they are unable to pay bail.
Over the summer, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a resolution calling for the Workhouse to be closed by the end of 2020, after months of pressure by the Close the Workhouse activist campaign.
According to a statement by that same group, the recent protests at the Justice Center were a response to inadequate protections for those being held there against the coronavirus.
There is not yet any public, city-level data available regarding COVID-19 transmission within St. Louis’ jails, or among correctional officers. Jacob Long, spokesperson for Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office, on Jan., 2 told KMOX radio that the jail’s two positive COVID-19 cases were being treated in the medical unit, away from the general prison population.
The Close the Workhouse campaign, however, says it has received reports of more widespread COVID-19 at the Justice Center and the Workhouse.
“The administration is, at best, being dishonest, and at worst, withholding information regarding the recent protests at CJC and COVID-19 cases in the jails,” the group said in a statement.
Marc Taylor and Neva Taylor, parents of a man who was relocated to the Workhouse last week, agreed. Their son, Marc Taylor II, has been serving time at the City Justice Center since September. Marc Taylor II, 29, is a father of three and a disabled veteran. He is serving time for his first offense.
In late December, Marc Taylor said, his son told him he noticed people starting to get sick in his pod. “He noticed there was a lot of sick people,” he said. “He said they were coughing, and he could tell they were sick.”
Then, the Taylors say, a group of inmates at the city justice center began to demand that correctional officers separate the sick from the well — a set of demands that Marc told them was ignored.
Neva Taylor said her son told her the protest was nonviolent. Then, “It got a bit more heightened, and...they took them to the Workhouse.” She added that not everyone taken to the Workhouse was in fact involved in the protest: “they took people who were and weren’t part of it.”
Now, the Taylors are concerned for their son’s physical and mental well-being. Since being moved to the new jail, they say he has not been able to access his medication. He has also had to let go of all his possessions—books his parents sent him to read in jail, long-sleeved shirts for the cold, and holiday cards. “He said, he knows they’re gonna be gone when he gets back,” Marc Taylor said. Since he was moved to his new location, he has not received his medication, nor has he been able to speak with his mental health counselor.
In other jails in Missouri, the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly for some time. Howard and Pike counties closed their jails entirely in November, due to transmission of the disease among staff.
St. Louis County Jail has become a hotspot for the virus, too. In early November, a group of inmates in St. Louis County Jail attempted a similar protest to this week’s actions in St. Louis, also refusing to return to their cells. At that point, 110 inmates at that jail had tested positive for COVID-19.
Incarcerated people are at a particularly high risk for contracting the disease. According to data collected by the Equal Justice Initiative, they are five times more likely to become infected than the general population. As of Dec. 18, one in five prisoners in the United States was infected with the coronavirus, according to an Associated Press/Marshall Project report.
As of Monday, there were 711 people being held at the St. Louis City Justice Center, and 144 at the Workhouse.
In Missouri, correctional officers are slated to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the first phase of the vaccination rollout. Incarcerated people, however, have to wait until the second phase.
In the meantime, inmates at St. Louis County jails and their families say they are not being told whether the sick people they are housed with are COVID-positive or not. “The biggest concern was the mixing of the sick prisoners with the non-sick prisoners,” Marc Taylor said, adding that his son, who has been moved to the Workhouse, has no clue when or if he will be moved back. “They said it was indefinite.”
If they get sick and die….it’s going to be on the city of St. Louis. Prisoners have rights,” Marc Taylor stated. “Now, he could be subject to a death sentence, because of being put in with someone who has COVID.”