By Lena Mercer
For the second time this year, prisoners at the City Justice Center in Downtown St. Louis, MO have staged a protest demanding their rights. On Sunday night, prisoners smashed through the glass of street-facing windows and threw flaming debris to the street below. A crowd gathered around the facility while people, including local news reporters, filmed the men shouting their demands and chanting. The protest is very similar to another protest that occurred at the same facility just two months prior.
Around 9:00 p.m., commentators on social media noticed a disturbance at the downtown facility. Within minutes, it appeared the glass windows facing Tucker Boulevard were smashed from inside. This set of windows is located a full floor lower than the ones broken in February. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., Sheriff Vernon Betts told KMOV reporter Alexis Zotos that “we may have a couple of injured inmates”, but no guards had been hurt.
As of 10:20 p.m., local reporting stated that the prisoners had moved away from the windows and “police officers could be seen inside the windows looking around with flashlights in hand.” The AP described the February disturbance as the 3rd such event since December 2020, making tonight the 4th explosion of frustration over conditions inside the facility.
At close to 10:55pm (CST) a second group of people, also dressed in the standard facility issued yellow jumpsuits, broke out a second set of windows on the opposite side of the building. It is not clear at this time if this is a separate unit than the first group seen earlier tonight.
Detainees lit small fires and chanted their demands while pressed up against the shattered remnants of the glass facade. Videos from multiple social media platforms show the men with arms raised above their heads, chanting “we want court dates”. According to the loved one of a formerly incarcerated man in the facility, some people have been held for nearly 5 years awaiting trial.
Tensions around these long-term conditions have intensified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic due to the jail staff’s alleged lack of care for those housed in the facility. According to a former Justice Center detainee in a letter dated Jan 2 of this year, more than 50 prisoners staged a peaceful protest in the facility at the end of December 2020. The demands of the protest were based on what the letter describes as long-term grievances around proper nutrition, access to personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the denial of in-person visitation during the pandemic lockdown. The letter also states the detainees’ grievances due to lack of access to basic information about their legal cases, future court dates.
In February, tensions boiled over into a multi-hour confrontation as prisoners voiced their concerns and demands through t-shirt masks and broken windows to the crowds around the Justice Center. The issues were much the same: lack of access to basic necessities and information about their futures. Since February, a Task Force has been assembled to make recommendations about the facility to the local city government. A report was presented to the Mayor that urged the creation of an oversight board to monitor conditions inside the facility. According to the Associated Press, “the task force also recommended more recreation time for inmates, limiting the length of stay in a holding cell to a maximum of 24 hours, faster response to medical needs, and a renewed effort to reduce legal logjams that have kept some pre-trial detainees in jail for well over a year.”
Lena Mercer is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest and a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective.
Header Photo Source: KSDK