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

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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."