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Monday, April 5, 2021

St. Louis Inmates Revolt — Again — at City Justice Center Jail

Posted By on Mon, Apr 5, 2021 at 2:41 AM

click to enlarge Inmates appear to react to a chemical irritant at the St. Louis City Justice Center - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Inmates appear to react to a chemical irritant at the St. Louis City Justice Center

For the second time in less than two months, inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over portions of the jail and smashed windows to the outside world.

On Sunday night, detainees first busted out the windows on the northwest corner of the third floor, facing City Hall. Some shouted, "We want court dates," an ongoing complaint for those locked away during the pandemic while courts were shut down and cases were delayed.

The inmates threw plastic stools and metal appliances out of the smashed windows and set small fires that burned atop a ledge two stories below. By 10:20 p.m., it appeared — from the outside at least — that jail staff had regained control. Inmates left the windows and were replaced in the frames of broken glass by sheriff's deputies dressed in heavy armor and helmets. Soon, handcuffed detainees could be seen being led away by law enforcement one at a time down a set of stairs.

click to enlarge Law enforcement appeared in the windows after inmates scattered. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Law enforcement appeared in the windows after inmates scattered.

City firefighters standing on the street hosed down burning bedding and other debris that were still smoldering on the exterior ledge. For the next half hour, it was relatively quiet, occasionally interrupted by kids flinging rolls of toilet paper and scraps of metal and plastic back toward the jail windows. But just as the crowd started to thin out in the lead up to 11 p.m., the sound of glass shattering erupted from the southwest corner of the third floor.

Within seconds, the opaque glass on three more windows had been bashed out by inmates with a scrap of lumber. They flung a microwave out, and it slammed to the sidewalk where dozens of supporters cheered.

At one point, men in the windows lowered what appeared to be bed sheets tied together like a rope to a ledge below and tied it off on the window frame. But while some in the crowd called for them to climb down and others pleaded with them not to risk it, the rope was never used.

Inmates began covering their mouths, and a whiff of some sort of chemical irritant wafted down to the street. The windows emptied shortly after, and jail staff appeared in the frames, untying the makeshift rope and hauling it back over the jagged edges of the broken glass.

click to enlarge St. Louis jail inmates broke out windows on the third floor of the City Justice Center. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • St. Louis jail inmates broke out windows on the third floor of the City Justice Center.

Inmates have been complaining for months about conditions at the jail and delayed court dates during the pandemic. On February 6, men on the fourth floor took over two units, smashing out windows on the east and west sides of the building. City officials categorized it as a spur-of-the-moment riot by violent opportunists who jumped in when an inmate got into a fight with a guard. But advocates for those locked up in the city's two jails say there had been long-simmering tensions due to mistreatment and court delays. On average, city inmates spend nearly a year awaiting trial.

February's revolt also raised questions about security at the City Justice Center, the newer and supposedly more secure of St. Louis' two jails. (The older jail, the Medium Security Institution or "Workhouse," had been slated to close by the end of 2020, but that has been delayed.) Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards told reporters at the time that inmates could undo the locks on cells and that it had been an ongoing problem. Edwards has since resigned, apparently anticipating being replaced when a new mayor takes office later this month.

It wasn't immediately clear how inmates again managed to take over two parts of the jail on Sunday night. Jacob Long, spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson, released a statement early Monday morning saying there were "two violent and dangerous disturbances" at the jail, beginning at about 8:30 p.m.

"Detainees became non-compliant, covered security cameras, smashed windows, and destroyed property," Long said, adding that the people at the jail are held on the orders of the courts.

Sheriff Vernon Betts, whose deputies staff the jail, was on the street on Sunday night, watching the chaos unfold. As kids threw debris at the jail, he stepped into the crowd and shouted to them that they were on camera. That led to a heated exchange between Betts and others in the crowd about the jail conditions with the sheriff disputing that people were being mistreated.

click to enlarge St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts watched the incident from the street. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts watched the incident from the street.

Krewson appointed a task force to investigate jail operations following February's uprising. The group produced a report with recommendations, including establishing an independent oversight board.

Advocates for the detainees say conditions at the jail remain a problem. ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit public interest law firm, sued the city in federal court on behalf of a disabled inmate who reported that he spent 168 days without an accessible shower. Instead, he was given a wash basin and a rag, according to the suit. A judge granted him a temporary restraining order last month, demanding the city provide him with a wheelchair-accessible shower.

As the latest uprising played out on Sunday night, ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode tweeted his criticism of the system of mass incarceration and warned that some would use the latest revolt to argue the Workhouse should remain open.

"I guess because when you have two disgusting, scandalous jails, neither one can survive on its own?" Strode tweeted. "If anything, this is yet another reflection of how this practice of mass caging has failed and continues to fail all of us. It's more urgent than ever to close one of these two hellholes NOW and put that time, energy, and money to good use in our communities."
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