The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After St. Louis jail unrest, inmates’ advocates allege desperate conditions while officials defend pandemic response

Inmates yell from broken windows at the St. Louis Justice Center on Saturday. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP)

ST. LOUIS — Some inmate advocates and attorneys said Monday that they are not surprised at a weekend uprising at the jail here during which inmates smashed windows and set fires and a corrections officer ended up hospitalized.

“They are desperate in there, and anyone would be at this point,” Erika Wurst, a lawyer with the St. Louis public defender’s office, said of the more than 700 people detained at the St. Louis Justice Center, a six-story building a few blocks from the city’s riverfront. 

Wurst and other advocates allege that inmates have been mistreated during the coronavirus pandemic, left in de facto solitary confinement and minded by jail staffers who do not maintain proper safety protocols. City officials, meanwhile, defended their management of the facility, saying they have provided appropriate treatment and protective equipment. 

“I understand that there are different agendas, and frankly being confined is a very difficult situation,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson (D) said at a news conference at the jail Monday afternoon. “But in terms of keeping folks here safely and providing them with adequate food and adequate [building] temperature, we are doing a good job.”

Prisons and jails have become a ‘public health threat’ during pandemic, advocates say

According to authorities, Saturday’s disruption began when a “defiant” inmate “got into a scuffle” with a corrections officer. Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said other inmates detained on the same floor then “jumped” the officer. More than 100 inmates were involved, he said.

ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that created a hotline in late March for people to report on conditions at local jails, said that before Saturday’s unrest, the organization had received 60 calls about issues at the facility, including concerns about inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus not being isolated, a lack of recreational time and retribution from guards over complaints. Inmates had staged two protests previously.

“Our understanding is that these are ongoing issues that detainees have been raising for weeks, if not months, in the jail and haven’t been responded to,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity.

Edwards said the jail, which opened in 2002, is understaffed. He said faulty locks also contributed to Saturday’s mayhem. Some units have locks that do not lock properly, he said, despite an automated system showing that they are secure. That glitch allowed some inmates to get out of their cells Saturday.

The images of inmates standing at broken windows drew nationwide attention, spreading widely on social media. Edwards said that at no point was there any hostage situation and that no detainees were hurt, but he called it “criminal mayhem” carried out by “very violent people.”

Unlike other disruptions at the jail in recent weeks, which were attributed to frustrations over the virus, “no reason was given” during the unrest Saturday, Edwards said. He also said there were no coronavirus cases at the jail. 

But attorneys point to the long list of safety complaints inmates had been registering for months. They said a sign held by the inmates reading “Free 57” during Saturday’s unrest referred to the number of inmates who have allegedly been in solitary confinement since a December demonstration.

“If you have even the slightest knowledge of global events and what is going on inside the facility that he is supposed to be supervising, then you know what their needs are and what their requests are,” said Wurst, the public defender. “I think he is trying to deflect attention from the very legitimate suffering that they are going through right now.”

While defending the situation at the jail, Krewson acknowledged a lack of public trust in officials’ claims and said the city would establish an independent task force to evaluate conditions there. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner on Monday also announced dual investigations, one of what happened at the jail and another looking into concerns raised by advocates and others about the treatment of inmates.

Saturday’s incident and dispute over conditions at the jail, along with another correctional facility seven miles away that activists have pushed to close, highlight the significant issues the country’s criminal justice system is facing at a time when reform advocates have an ally in the White House. The wave of racial-justice protests that followed George Floyd’s death in police custody last year helped further fuel those calls. Meanwhile, coronavirus outbreaks in the country’s jails and prisons have spurred pleas to reduce the number of people locked up, to prevent further spread. 

Sharon Dolovich, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that while officials frequently dismiss disruptions like what happened in St. Louis as empty violence, they are often expressions of anger from people who already have limited avenues to speak out and now face greater anxiety due to the pandemic. 

“That people in custody feel driven to this kind of response is a measure of the failure of various political institutions and the courts . . . to adequately respond to this virus,” Dolovich said. Officials have “left people with the least power in the most dangerous situation with no channel for expressing their fear,” other than lashing out at their own environment, she said. 

Dolovich directs the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project. As of last week, she said, it had tracked more than 370,000 coronavirus cases among people incarcerated in prisons and jails, along with more than 2,200 deaths. It also tracked more than 81,000 cases among staffers at these facilities, along with 129 deaths, Dolovich said. 

These numbers are almost assuredly undercounting the true toll, she said, because the researchers rely on reported and available numbers. 

The pandemic has helped stymie efforts in St. Louis to change a much-criticized element of the local justice system, officials say. While activists have pushed to shut down a medium-security jail called “the workhouse,” alleging inhumane conditions there, the facility remains open, and dozens of people were moved there from the downtown jail after Saturday’s unrest. 

American prison factories becoming incubators for coronavirus

Protests behind bars have a long history in the United States, with incarceration cutting off many of the other ways people might typically demonstrate, said David C. Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. 

“Incarcerated people can’t call their member of Congress,” he said. “They can’t go down to the capitol to lobby. They’re stripped of the right to vote. In some prisons, even written petitions are banned. For incarcerated people, strikes, civil disobedience and other forms of personal protests are really the only ways they have to make their voices heard.” 

In response to Saturday’s unrest, officials moved 55 prisoners to another unit with what Edwards said had a better locking system. An additional 65 of what he called “the most violent offenders” were taken to the workhouse, he said. 

The workhouse has been a fraught subject in St. Louis, and the city’s board of aldermen approved a plan last summer to close it by the end of 2020. But that date came and went, and the board last month approved a measure to allow the public to vote on whether to close the jail in April.

Lewis Reed, president of the board and a mayoral candidate, said he pushed the ordinance last year requiring the corrections chief to come up with a plan to close the workhouse by the end of 2020. 

But the virus made shuttering it outright difficult, Reed said in an interview, because officials were unable to find other facilities to take some of the people incarcerated there. Corrections officials also needed a way to alleviate crowding at the downtown jail, which had already taken on some people previously held at the workhouse, he said. 

Reed said he was glad the workhouse was still open when Saturday’s unrest happened, so officials were able to “transfer that population over and bring some closure to what was happening.” 

Reed also said that while the workhouse is a significant focus for many, the central issue in criminal justice reform is much larger. The workhouse “is a building, right?” he said. “Closing that building without changing the institutions that led to people being locked up in that building, what truly have we achieved?”

Berman reported from Washington.