On Easter Sunday, about 60 people incarcerated at the St. Louis City Justice Center (CJC) jail in downtown St. Louis escaped from their cells and joined together in an uprising to demand their day in court and improved conditions inside the jail amidst the deadly pandemic. It was the second major uprising at the CJC since February, and at least the fourth coordinated protest there in the last five months. Across the country, the pandemic has catalyzed a year of unprecedented unrest inside jails and prisons. Researchers at Perilous Chronicle reported in November that there had been 119 acts of collective resistance in just the first 90 days of Covid-19 at facilities in the United States and Canada.
The Easter rebellion began around 8:30 pm, when protesters smashed the third-floor windows of the jail and dropped a sign, painted in white toothpaste, that read help us. They yelled to a crowd gathering below, “We want court dates!” Protestors threw jail uniforms, furniture, a computer, and other objects out the broken windows. The uprising lasted hours as detainees gained control of two separate wings of the jail. Eventually, police in riot gear wrested back control, using tear gas to disperse the protest.
A few months earlier, on December 29 and January 1, groups of detainees refused to return to their cells, protesting a near-complete lack of Covid-19 protections. Ultimately, tear gas quelled those efforts as well, and over 100 detainees were sent to the Medium Security Institution, better known as the “Workhouse,” a facility that is infamous for its inhumane conditions and history of abuses.
For years, activists have demanded the permanent closure of the Workhouse. Last June, the Board of Aldermen voted to shut it down. That closure was slated to take place on December 31, until former Mayor Lyda Krewson reversed course. Activist efforts to bail out detainees en masse had decreased the workhouse population from 575 in 2018 to fewer than 60 by November 2020. Following this string of uprisings, however, the Workhouse population has ballooned back up to 330 detainees.
Newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones has renewed the promise to close the Workhouse, and says she’ll do so in her first 100 days. Her administration’s budget for fiscal year 2022 proposed cutting and redistributing all $7.8 million of funding for the Workhouse.
Last year, ArchCity Defenders, a local legal advocacy group, launched a hotline for reporting abuses in city jails. They received hundreds of calls from those being detained. Emanuel Powell, attorney with ArchCity Defenders, said there have been consistent reports of people “being indiscriminately maced by correctional officers, water being turned off for punishment purposes,” and “a lot of folks were talking about being put into cells with individuals who were showing signs for Covid.”
Almost everyone being held at the CJC is a pretrial detainee. Hundreds have been waiting over a year for their day in court. Because of Covid-19 shut-downs, St. Louis City has gone a little over a year without holding a single jury trial. “I know some people that’ve been waiting in there for six years,” says Eric Ware, an organizer at Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing St. Louis. “That’s six years without ever walking outside.” In an interview with The Nation, Ware said that inadequate Covid-19 protections are only part of the story. He also pointed to a lack of medical care, widespread abuse, and unprofessionalism by correctional officers, retaliatory and arbitrary punishment, overcrowding, and overpriced commissary.
When asked about the conditions inside the CJC, Ware responded that in addition to the physical issues, “it’s really psychological torment as well. I have to live with it every day—when I wake up, I’m having flashbacks and everything.” He wasn’t surprised by the unrest inside the CJC. “This is their only grievance system.” Ware was held as a pretrial detainee in the CJC for six months in 2020.
The City Justice Center opened in 2002 and continues to be described by the city as a “cutting edge” and “state of the art” correctional facility. Yet like the Workhouse, the CJC has been plagued with reports of inhumane conditions of confinement since it opened. In 2009, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri published a report Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers. The report, based on extensive interviews with correctional officers and detainees, found “endemic abuse of inmates and a pattern of policy violations at the CJC,” where, “according to those interviewed, human dignity is contemptuously disregarded, and civil liberties violations and physical abuse of residents are covered up regularly by officials.”
John Chasnoff is the cochair of Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression and the editor of the ACLU’s Suffering in Silence report. Chasnoff says in an interview, “The conditions for this uprising have been ripe for a long, long time. We couldn’t say when the spark would happen, but we’ve been waiting for it, been warning the city about it.”
The CJC was constructed for a maximum capacity of 860 detainees, but a 2020 consultation report listed the operating capacity at only 665. On Sunday, before the uprising broke out, there were 755 people detained at the CJC, almost 100 more than the limit for safe operating capacity. For decades, there have been complaints of overcrowding, but the situation has reached a breaking point as detainees are being denied recreation time, visitation, and adequate medical care. The overcrowding at St. Louis jails is largely due to the city’s practice of setting cash bail, often in the thousands, for 79 percent of all cases. Many other cities permit the majority of arrestees to be released “on their own recognizance,” meaning on their word.
Ware filed a lawsuit against the CJC in August 2020. He has a background in paralegal studies and filed his lawsuit pro se, meaning without any representation. Ware described how the CJC did not have a law library that detainees could access, making it must harder to defend themselves or file lawsuits against the conditions of confinement. “I wrote it all on a roll of toilet paper, that was all we had,” Ware says of his complaint. It states, “Covid-19 had spread so badly, they are now housing Covid patients with non-Covid general population or people that exhibit Covid-19 symptoms. There is no safe place in the jail to be quarantined.” He goes on, “The detainees have even talked about taking over the entire jail if they are left to die, this has become serious at the jail and it’s covered up.”
According to the report issued by former Mayor Krewson’s Corrections Task Force, the average detainee spends 146 days or almost five months waiting for their probable cause hearing. This hearing is the first time that a judge will consider the quantity and quality of evidence against a person to determine if it’s sufficient to move the case forward. Often probable cause hearings end in a dismissal of the case. Because most of the people incarcerated in the CJC were arrested on the scene and without a warrant, there has been very little review of their case or the sufficiency of the evidence against them.
In the press conference following the uprising in February, Jimmy Edwards, St. Louis Public Safety Director, said, “We know exactly the people that were involved, we know the people that set the fires, we have lots of surveillance and we are going to be able to take a look at that.” Commenting on the April 4 uprising, however, Dale Glass, city corrections commissioner, admitted that the City doesn’t know how many people were involved, or exactly what happened because, “the first thing that happened,” is that the detainees “cut the cameras and we can’t really see what’s going on there.” It seems the protesters’ tactics are evolving.
City officials have denied all responsibility for the revolt. Glass said, “There was nothing that we did to cause them to react this way,” while Jimmie Edwards, the public safety director, claimed that all inmate claims of mistreatment were “absolutely false.”
Responding to these comments, Powell said, “I think it’s really problematic. It belies a true indifference to what’s happening to the people who are detained. And something we hope maybe will change with the new administration.”
Newly inaugurated Mayor Tishuara Jones campaigned on a platform of decaracerating St. Louis, advocating for policy changes such as the end of the cash bail system. It’s been weeks since the last uprising, but it remains to be seen whether the city, and the new administration, will take seriously the demands for better conditions from those inside St. Louis jails.
“Now they have had two uprisings,” Ware cautions, “and they may have a third. The next one may be different. They could have been holding hostages and stuff—it could have turned real serious. People are tired. They got tired.”