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St. Louis Inmates Take Over Units After Weeks of Complaints 

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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.

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