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St. Louis Jails Stocked up on Pepper Spray as Detainees Complained of Abuse 

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In the past, federal judges have issued multiple orders barring the city's police department from using pepper spray and tear gas as a way to disperse crowds or retaliate against nonviolent protesters. (In a preliminary injunction in 2017, U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry wrote, "Plaintiffs' evidence — both video and testimony — shows that officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct.") But there was no such order directed specifically at jail staff, who operate under a separate division of the city Department of Public Safety. As such, the pepper spray flowed freely at the City Justice Center as well as the Medium Security Institution, or Workhouse, before it was emptied out this spring. And unlike police protests on the street, advocates for detainees allege the abuse played out behind closed doors, without news crews and cellphone cameras to show what was happening. The uprisings offered rare glimpses inside.

There were at least two protests within the City Justice Center in December, which received modest media coverage. But a mass revolt on the morning of February 6 forced issues at the jail into the national spotlight. More than 100 men housed on the fourth floor took over two units, bashing out windows, setting fires and calling out to loved ones and onlookers who gathered below on Tucker Boulevard. Jail staff, backed up by city police, were eventually able to corral the detainees, who'd jimmied malfunctioning locks to escape their cells.

"They macing us," shouted one man from the window before he was taken away.

A St. Louis Sheriff's deputy and police SWAT supervisor look out of shattered window on February 6, 2021, at the City Justice Center. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • A St. Louis Sheriff's deputy and police SWAT supervisor look out of shattered window on February 6, 2021, at the City Justice Center.

Twenty days later, according to a SABRE invoice, the pepper-spray manufacturer had an order from the city for $17,379 worth of canisters.

Less than two months after that, in early April, there was another uprising. Detainees had once again bypassed faulty locks, this time taking over units on the third floor in another fiery protest. It took hours for jail staff to regain control. By the time it was over, the smell of pepper spray was so strong that it scratched your throat if you were outside on the street below.

Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom says it's his understanding that jail staff went through a significant amount of pepper spray during the series of revolts. Appointed in April by incoming Mayor Tishaura Jones to replace Edwards, who had resigned weeks before, Isom wasn't overseeing the department when it went on its pepper-spray buying spree. But he tells the RFT he was told the explanation is twofold: Not only did corrections officers run through a lot of canisters that needed to be replaced, they discovered that a lot of the reserves they did have were expired.

"There was a lot of the supply that the shelf life was over and couldn't be used and had been sitting there for a while, so they needed to replenish," he says.

But that doesn't explain all of it. Hanlon points out that none of the incidents described in their lawsuit occurred during the uprisings. Clients in the jails had reported a rise in excessive, punitive macing during the day-to-day life of the City Justice Center, and the biggest buy, February's order for 800 canisters, occurred well before the second of the two largest revolts. And while December's order was the biggest of 2020, it was also the third of the year. In July 2020, the city ordered 30 of the big pistol-grip canisters for a total of $939.60, preceded by a $1,944 order in January 2020 for 30 Cell Busters.

Compare that to a single order in 2019 — $927 for 100 small, 3-ounce cans — and an even smaller order in 2018 for just four Cell Busters at a cost of $283.36.

"It's not just that they're buying more canisters," Hanlon says. "It's that they're buying bigger canisters."

It's not clear how many and what size of canisters the city typically keeps on hand for jail staff. Isom said he wasn't sure, and a mayor's spokesman has not provided answers in follow-up conversations and emails in recent weeks. It's also not clear whether any of the pepper spray used on detainees came from the apparently large cache of expired canisters — a question Hanlon wonders about.

"The detainees and our clients will talk about this really toxic, heavy-duty stuff," she says.

Not that the burning, stinging effect of getting maced would be at odds with the intended goal. In marketing materials, SABRE has long bragged about the potency of its sprays.

"Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975!" reads a 2015 brochure used to market its line to law enforcement agencies. Below and to the right of a collage of grown men, their agonized faces dripping in red-orange spray, is a picture of the Cell Buster.

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