St. Louis Inmates Take Over Units After Weeks of Complaints

Feb 6, 2021 at 3:20 pm
Inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over two units in the jail on February 6.
Inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over two units in the jail on February 6. DOYLE MURPHY
Editor's note: After our original story published on February 6, we continued to report as we prepared for the Riverfront Times print issue. We updated this post on February 10 with that greatly expanded version of the story.

More than 100 inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over two units of the jail early Saturday morning, shattering fourth-floor windows and setting small fires as they called out jubilantly to a crowd of supporters who gathered on the street below.

The uprising began about 2:30 a.m., and detainees held control of the units for more than six hours before jail staff, bolstered by city sheriff's deputies and police, regained custody.

For weeks, tensions have been high at the downtown jail. Inmates staged two protests in late December and early January to complain about COVID-19 protocols and other conditions in the facility, where the majority of the city's detainees are now housed.

Saturday morning's uprising was the biggest and most public of the three. St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said at a 10:15 a.m. news conference that it began with a clash between an officer and one inmate. Other detainees jumped in and soon overran the unit as the injured officer escaped with bumps and bruises. Multiple inmates were able to jimmy the locks on their cells — an ongoing problem in the jail, Edwards said — to join the group.

"The locks don't necessarily lock," Edwards said.

Men in a second unit also let themselves out of their cells at about the same time. Both units are on the fourth floor but separate. The men then forced their way into adjoining hallways but never took control of the floor itself, remaining separated on the west and east sides of the building. In all, the two groups included 117 inmates, according to Edwards.

On both sides of the building, the men smashed windows and launched whatever they could through the openings. On the west side, which faces Tucker Boulevard, everything from plastic stools and digital monitors to packets of ramen noodles hit the pavement. On the back side of the jail, facing 11th Street, an entire elliptical machine landed next to a file cabinet, chairs and other debris. Rolls of toilet paper extended like streamers across the pavement. City workers later found the electronic controls for the cell door locks ripped from their moorings and flung out the windows like trash.

"We're going to do that shit all day," one man yelled after inmates threw a panel out of the west windows. "It ain't going to stop."

Inmates lit pieces of cloth on fire at the window ledge. One man set the bristles of a straw broom alight and held it over his head like a torch.

The men mostly wore masks or otherwise wrapped their faces in cloth. At times, there were at least eighteen crowded behind the jagged window edges. That continued until well after sunrise when the windows suddenly began to empty. A lone inmate remained at the far edge, narrating the arrival of officers.

"They macing us," he shouted to the crowd below, pausing to look over his left shoulder. "They throwing tear gas."

And then, "They arresting everybody." Soon, he too was gone.

Shortly before 9 a.m., officers and deputies wearing gas masks and helmets appeared in the newly deserted windows, leaning out of the openings with fire extinguishers to blitz embers still smoldering on a concrete ledge.

A St. Louis sheriff's deputy uses a fire extinguisher on burning debris. - DOYLE MURPHY
A St. Louis sheriff's deputy uses a fire extinguisher on burning debris.

The mood during the uprising, both on the fourth floor and in the crowd of supporters cheering from the street, had been celebratory. But the incident followed weeks of unanswered complaints from inmates and crackdowns by jailers, advocates say. In the hours and days after the jailhouse revolt, advocates and city officials clashed over why it happened and what it meant. Attorneys and activists who have been working against the cash bail system that leaves people who are too poor to pay stuck behind bars for months, even years, described it as a predictable response to what they say has been weeks of legitimate but unanswered concerns from detainees.

"Since the middle of December, we've been receiving emails and reports from families and people who are incarcerated about the constant mistreatment of inmates inside of the jail," said Michael Milton, advocacy and policy manager for the Bail Project in Missouri. "From how they've handled COVID, from how they've handled even food and nutrition, [inmates] have had several different demands about the treatment inside of CJC."

Inmates and their families have told the Bail Project that officers have retaliated against detainees who raised concerns about other "visibly sick" inmates, even changing housing assignments to force them to share cells with the ill inmates in question, Milton said.

At a recent public safety hearing, city officials revealed there had been a December surge of COVID-19 cases among inmates and more than 80 people housed in St. Louis' two facilities had tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic.

Speaking on Saturday to reporters gathered in City Hall, Edwards dismissed any COVID-19 concerns as a motive for Saturday's uprising, saying there were currently no cases of COVID in the jail. He described the breach as a one-on-one scuffle between a guard and an upset inmate that ballooned into a larger problem. In his telling, it was not a long-approaching conflict, but an unpredictable eruption that was exploited by violent men. He described it as different from the previous protests in December and January.

St. Louis Inmates Take Over Units After Weeks of Complaints
St. Louis Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards

"The first reason given was 'COVID,'" he said. "The second reason given was 'COVID.' This time, no reason was given."

Edwards emphasized that no hostages were taken or demands made on Saturday.

"This was not a situation where we were required or asked to negotiate with any of the detainees," Edwards said. "So this was not a situation where there were demands being made by anyone. These were just very angry, defiant, very violent people that we house at the Justice Center."

A St. Louis sheriff's deputy looks out the broken window of the jail. - DOYLE MURPHY
A St. Louis sheriff's deputy looks out the broken window of the jail.

Edwards' rundown of what happened Saturday morning struck inmate advocates as not only wrong, but intentionally dismissive of detainees.

Blake Strode, executive director of the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders, said inmates had been airing grievances for more than a month — the city just hasn't done anything to address them. ArchCity has a jail hotline (314-643-8773) to take calls from inmates and their families. Like the Bail Project, ArchCity has received a surge of calls since mid-December from inmates concerned about COVID-19 spread. Other repeated complaints included accounts of freezing temperatures, harsh treatment by officers and inadequate access to medical care.

"I can only tell you that we've heard the same demands over and over and over again," Strode said.

After the protests in December and January, the city responded by moving dozens of the men involved to the Medium Security Institution. Better known as the Workhouse, MSI has earned a notorious reputation since it opened in 1966. Accounts of "gladiator-style" fight clubs, high suicide rates and ruthless guards have plagued the 1,138-capacity jail at times over the years. Then there is the deterioration of the facility itself. Set among the junkyards and shipping terminals along an industrial stretch of the North Riverfront neighborhood, generations of inmates have complained about black mold, bad water, rats and extreme temperatures. In the summer of 2017, recordings of inmates screaming out of the windows for relief from roasting heat drew national attention — and prompted the city to install temporary air conditioning units.

"Those people are complaining about the same things I said five years ago and someone before me said five years before that," said Inez Bordeaux, who spent 30 days in the Workhouse because she could not afford bail during a low point in her life.

Now the manager of community collaborations for ArchCity Defenders, Bordeaux says you can add the fear of catching COVID-19 to the ongoing problems. She was among a group of formerly incarcerated people who spoke during an online rally after Saturday's uprising to help explain the frustration and desperation driving the recent revolts.

"I have personally spoken to dozens of people who all say the same things: They don't have access to COVID testing when they have symptoms. They don't have access to PPE. They don't have access to cleaning supplies. They can't social distance. That the staff inside of the jail has been mistreating them. They don't have access to nutritious food," Bordeaux said in Sunday's livestreamed event. "That is why the uprising happened."

Inez Bordeaux speaks at a Close the Workhouse event in January 2020. - DOYLE MURPHY
Inez Bordeaux speaks at a Close the Workhouse event in January 2020.

Jail reform advocates have worked for years to shut down the Workhouse, citing brutal conditions. It appeared they had finally pushed the city to make that happen last year, but officials have been slow to act. The majority of people incarcerated in the city (876 on Saturday, according to the city's corrections site) now stay in the newer City Justice Center across from City Hall. A concerted effort by activist organizations along with a certain amount of cooperation between public defenders and prosecutors led to a drastic drop in the overall jail population during the pandemic, which helped drain the Workhouse of inmates. But as 2020 ended with the Workhouse still hanging on, the number of overall inmates has started to trend back up, according to city jail data. Activists who fought for hard-won promises to close the aging facility now worry city officials will use the recent incidents to keep it open. Indeed, Edwards told reporters "MSI is a more secure facility than CJC." He then repeated himself for emphasis. It does, jail officials said later, have locks that work consistently.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association on Saturday tweeted a photo of inmates standing at the broken windows of the City Justice Center and wrote, "It almost makes citizens wish there was a manageable, more spacious, secure, stand alone jail facility away from the city's downtown business center where we could house riotous prisoners. Oh wait...."

But advocates for closing the Workhouse argue that the smart, humane response to the recent revolts in the more modern City Justice Center is to shutter the Workhouse and use the money to address concerns.

A bill in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen aimed to do just that. Board Bill 167 sought to defund the Workhouse and create the Re-envisioning Public Safety Special Trust Fund, with the nearly $3.8 million in savings directed toward expenses such as increased COVID-19 testing for guards and inmates and transitioning staff at MSI to filling open positions in the City Justice Center. Nearly two thirds of the money would be designated to help pay for programs, such as long-term rental assistance, designed to attack the roots of crime.

That bill stalled in the Ways and Means committee two days before Saturday's uprising at the jail.

Inmates drop flaming debris from the windows. - DOYLE MURPHY
Inmates drop flaming debris from the windows.

Images of the inmates in the busted windows, at times illuminated and obscured by flame and smoke, were impossible to ignore.

Alongside dozens of inmates' friends, relatives and other supporters who gathered on Saturday morning along Tucker to witness the scene was a bank of TV cameras intermixed with half-frozen reporters.

The two protests at the turn of the year had attracted local media attention, but photos and videos of inmates in yellow uniforms were soon picked up by CNN, NBC and the Washington Post among other national and international outlets.

In the same way that the video in 2017 of inmates calling from the windows of the Workhouse finally awakened the public to the plight of men and women imprisoned in unbearable heat, the long-simmering complaints of men at the City Justice Center hit the outside world on Saturday morning — one hurled plastic stool at a time.

On the backside of the jail, debris thrown from the fourth floor landed on the street, sidewalk and and SUV. - DOYLE MURPHY
On the backside of the jail, debris thrown from the fourth floor landed on the street, sidewalk and and SUV.

The final interpretation of their message is still unfolding this week.

Edwards, the public safety director, met with reporters within an hour of guards reclaiming control of the two fourth-floor units on Saturday. He resisted any suggestion the uprising was part of a larger protest or anything other than a spasm of violence.

"These are very, very violent men that are housed in these two units," Edwards said.

He described a "defiant detainee who was very, very upset" that morning who fought with a correctional officer before other inmates piled on. As the melee grew — and the guard escaped — men in a second unit across the floor also forced their way out of their cells.

"Those detainees were also very aggressive, very violent," Edwards told reporters.

Strode from ArchCity Defenders and Milton from the Bail Project watched a feed of the news conference and were appalled by what they heard. In separate interviews with the RFT shortly after, Strode and Milton each pointed out that inmates in the city jails are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent. Edwards' description of inmates as "very violent" was fear-mongering designed to undercut legitimate issues raised repeatedly by inmates, they argued. Strode and Milton also worried that city officials would use the uprising to justify keeping the Workhouse open even longer, an unspoken theme in officials' comments about supposed overcrowding in the City Justice Center.

Both ArchCity and the Bail Project have worked to free inmates during the pandemic, arguing that the cash bail system preys on the poor, hitting minority communities hardest. In St. Louis, inmates averaged more than 300 days in city jails while awaiting trial. That number has only increased during the pandemic.

"In that situation," Strode said, "you have very many people that are, rightly, upset."

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. - COURTESY OF ARCHCITY DEFENDERS
Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

In the days that followed Saturday's clash, activists fought back against the narrative that the uprising was an unexpected one-off act of violent criminals, rather than the conscientious resistance of men with no other outlet for making themselves heard.

"These are human beings; these are real people," Bordeaux of ArchCity said. "These are our friends, our neighbors, the people who bag our groceries at Schnucks, the people who work at banks, preschool teachers, so and so forth."

Far from an isolated problem, activists described issues at the jail as symptoms of a broken justice system that jails Black and Brown people from poor communities at disproportionate rates and keeps them locked up for months or even years while wealthier people facing similar charges bail out within hours.

After smashing the jail windows on Saturday, inmates hung signs out of the openings. One read "Free 57," a reference in support of their fellow inmates who had been locked down in response to the first protests. Another read, "What about Anthony Smith" — Smith being the 24-year-old Black man shot dead in 2011 by white police officer Jason Stockley. The killing still looms large in St. Louis, sparking mass protests and a two-fisted response by police in 2017 after Stockley was acquitted of murder. Invoking Smith's name would seem like a non sequitur if viewing the jail revolt as a singular event, but in reality those arguing to close the Workhouse and end cash bail see a continuous line, delineating an unjust system with separate rules for different people.

"What we saw was a very clear statement that the people demand to be heard and seen and not erased, not lied on," Milton said on Sunday during the online rally. "They want to show that St. Louis has been historically violent toward them — the moment that they divested from their schools, they divested from their neighborhoods, when they plant guns and drugs on them when they arrested them. This is decades of violence inflicted on them by the state."

And that message gained more attention after Saturday, even as workers boarded up the jail's broken windows and carted away the debris from the front steps.

A man picked up a shirt thrown by inmates and put it on in support. - DOYLE MURPHY
A man picked up a shirt thrown by inmates and put it on in support.

"We have an incarceration crisis," U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, said in a statement on Saturday. "To date, one in five incarcerated people nationally has tested positive for COVID-19, including many across the City of St. Louis. I am concerned that the conditions for people who are incarcerated pose serious risks to their health, safety, and well-being as well as that of those who work there."

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced on Monday she would be investigating what happened at the jail — what the inmates did, but also their complaints about abuse at the hands of the city to see if either rise to the level of criminal charges.

"Violence of any kind, particularly against law enforcement officials, is unacceptable," Gardner said in a news release. "We will ensure there is full accountability. But while some are calling for the immediate prosecution of the detainees involved, this situation demands further scrutiny."

She added that she is concerned about the jails' COVID-19 protocols as well as conditions that predate the pandemic.

"Even in the absence of a deadly global pandemic, it is no secret that jails are often inhumane facilities which fail to meet basic public health standards," Gardner said. "That is why my office will also be investigating any public health or other human rights violations committed against detainees, and how those may have contributed to the unrest."

Mayor Lyda Krewson on Monday discusses the jail revolt with reporters. - LYDA KREWSON
Mayor Lyda Krewson on Monday discusses the jail revolt with reporters.

On Monday, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced a new corrections task force would review St. Louis' jail operations following the recent uprisings.

She was joined at a news conference in the City Justice Center by Edwards and corrections Commissioner Dale Glass, who disputed accusations that conditions at the jail were anything but professionally, humanely run. Glass said inmates are given a weekly care package that includes four masks along with hygiene products to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. He also denied complaints that inmates are held in freezing conditions and without access to proper health care or nutritious food. All the meal plans are reviewed by a dietician, Glass said as he tried to strike down allegations, and he ultimately approves them, often with inmate input.

"They're being fed," the commissioner said. "That's not a problem."

Glass and the city officials spent much of the news conference fending off questions about malfunctioning locks in the jail — a detail that had unsurprisingly captured significant public, or at least media, interest but had little to do with inmates' concerns. Glass said there had been some issues with the computerized locks in the past and they thought they had been resolved. They were working on solving the issue now, he added.

A photo of the video live feed showing the fourth floor of the City Justice Center on Monday. - DOYLE MURPHY
A photo of the video live feed showing the fourth floor of the City Justice Center on Monday.

But as to the complaints from inmates, Glass seemed to see little room for improvement within jail operations. He spent time going point by point, arguing that the detainees' complaints were not the glaring issues that advocates for the inmates had made them out to be.

Edwards and Krewson pointed out that one of the main complaints — the excessive length of time people languish inside while awaiting resolutions of their cases — are ultimately out of the city's hands. It is the judges who decide who is detained and how soon their cases are heard. Edwards described the city's role in the judicial process as that of a "landlord" who is entrusted to keep the inmates safe. In that regard, he said the city is doing a good job.

Asked if there were any concerns raised by inmates that the city considered legitimate, Krewson said the new task force would review and assess all the facts. The task force will be chaired by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff and a number of heavy hitters, including newly former, but still fiercely outspoken state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed.

Krewson said she and other officials believe "we run a very good operation here," but acknowledged that not all agree. That's why she's created the task force, she said.

"I understand the public and maybe even some of the media may not believe what we tell you, so let's have a very-well-respected, quick-moving task force to confirm that or not," Krewson said. "Otherwise, detainees say one thing, and [St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass] and his people say another thing."

Their work begins this week.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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