One-hundred-and-seventeen inmates on Saturday took over the majority of the St. Louis City Justice Center’s fourth floor for several hours, smashing windows and setting fires in what is now the third inmate protest in the last six weeks at the jail.
“I think what we saw today was a buildup of deep frustration and process around the human rights of folks being detained in our local jails,” said Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis.
The inmates could be seen Saturday morning standing in front of broken windows on the fourth floor of the jail in downtown St. Louis, throwing objects onto the street and sidewalk while holding signs with phrases such as “FREE 57” and “What about Anthony Smith.”
Reed and ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode said the former could be referring to the 57 inmates transferred to solitary confinement at CJC on Dec. 29 after a similar protest. The latter is believed to be referencing the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, in which former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of first-degree murder.
The protest began around 2:30 a.m. Saturday, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said in a media briefing. An inmate was upset, he said, and “got into a scuffle” with a correctional officer, who was then jumped by other inmates.
“The detainees have the ability to jimmy their locks and the locks don’t necessarily lock, even though our automated panel system would indicate that the cells are locked, they are, in fact, not locked,” Edwards said. “And so other detainees were able to get out of their cells and into the unit.”
The six-story City Justice Center opened in 2002 and cost more than $80 million dollars to construct, according to the Close the Workhouse Campaign 2018 report. At the time of its opening, it was described as a “state of the art” design.
The jail’s website reported there were 759 inmates in custody held Saturday, more than 100 below the facility’s 860 bed capacity. Each floor of the jail houses four units each.
The average inmate population of both the City Justice Center and the Workhouse has declined by about 48-percent in the last decade — from an average of 1,704 in 2010 to a current average of 885, according to numbers provided by the city.
Edwards said after confronting the guard, the inmates were able to unlock other cells. He said authorities were able to get the corrections officer out of the unit. He was taken to the hospital and is said to be doing well.
The inmates, added Edwards, did not hold a hostage nor make demands during the protest. However, the men could be seen holding signs out of the window during the uprising. ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode said it was clear to him they were protesting conditions and the solitary confinement of inmates who had previously protested.
“These were just very angry, despondent, very violent people that we house at the Justice Center,” Edwards said, adding that the inmates at this jail are in custody for more serious charges — such as assault and murder — and that no low-level or misdemeanor offenders are held at the City Justice Center.
Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, said that kind of politically-charged rhetoric only seeks to create deep polarization and discourage the community from engaging in this issue. She also noted that as a local jail, the majority of inmates housed have not been tried by a jury of their peers. Those found guilty of crimes would be in custody at a prison.
Strode said there is a crisis when it comes to pre-trial detention and bond in St. Louis.
“Before a very long time, we have relied on cash bail in the city and in this region, which has resulted in hundreds of people being held in jail because they're too poor to buy their way out,” he said. “That is still true for some of the people in our jails, including city jails today. And the newer iteration of this is that many judges having been called on their cash bail abuses, have resorted to detaining people with no bond at all and are still not providing the constitutional hearings and making the constitutional findings that are required in order to detain someone pre-trial.”
Strode said inmates on average are held over 300 days before their trial.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said authorities did not meet resistance when they entered the fourth floor, and each inmate complied with instructions to get on the floor and exit one-by-one. He said he hopes the inmates are charged for their offenses during the uprising. Edwards added that police know exactly who did what and Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner has been contacted.
Edwards said his staff moved 55 inmates to the jail’s segregation unit, which is solitary confinement. Sixty-five “of some of the most violent offenders,” he added, were moved to the Workhouse, which he said is a more secure facility than the City Justice Center.
“This is unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable, irrespective of what circumstance you are in, this was not an attempt to break out of jail, this was certainly not a situation involving COVID,” Edwards said. “We have zero COVID cases at CJC. So this was a bunch of folk that were defiant, this was a bunch of people who decided that they were going to engage in criminal mayhem and that’s exactly what they did. And they should be held accountable for what they did.”
There is not yet any public, city-level data available regarding COVID-19 transmission within St. Louis’ jails. However, 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.
Strode said his team has people consistently reporting a lack of COVID-19 precautions in CJC.
“What we were able to extract from the city was a concession that, well, yes, more than 80 people had tested positive. It's just that they had been moved somewhere and were no longer in CJC so when they made the statement that no one in the jail has COVID, it was just because they moved those people,” Strode said of the ongoing issue. “But there was never any disclosure about the number of people that had COVID to begin with. Nor has there been disclosure about how frequently they're testing people, the number of people they're testing, whether people that had exposure are automatically tested or not … it's a real lack of transparency.”
The other two protests occurred just before and on New Year’s Day. Each time, the inmates refused to return to their cells in protest of inadequate protections against COVID-19 for those being held there.
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, 2020. Fifty-six people were transferred from the Justice Center to the Workhouse on Dec. 29, followed by 45 on Jan. 1.
The Workhouse remains fully operational and the Board of Aldermen on Jan. 29 voted 16-11 to pass a bill that puts a question about closing the Workhouse on the April ballot.
“The city doubled down on keeping people in cages. The city doubled down during a pandemic where jails are often hotspots for covid,” Reed wrote in a Facebook post. “Complaints coming from inside about the lack of covid protocol and the conditions. Folks inside have staged several protests and have been met with force and violence. Then today happened.”