St. Louis jail inmates stuffed trash and debris in locks to escape cells, city leaders say
It's at least the sixth security breach in the past eight months at the facility
By Rachel Rice
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Detainees at the city's downtown jail stuffed debris including toilet paper into door locks to escape their cells on Friday, in at least the sixth security breach in the past eight months at the facility.
It isn't feasible for corrections officers to constantly check locks to be sure inmates aren't foiling them, Director of Public Safety Dan Isom said at a news conference Sunday to address the latest incident.
About 140 detainees will be moved to the city's recently closed jail known as the "workhouse" because it is a safer option than keeping all of the inmates in a facility under repair, city officials said.
The disturbance on Friday evening was spurred by about 25 inmates, Isom said. In a pattern seen in previous jail riots, detainees overcame their cell door locks and refused to listen to the orders of the three corrections officers present, Isom said, and so corrections staff sprayed inmates with pepper spray. City officials say no detainees or staff were hurt, but one of the jail pods on the third floor sustained damage.
Locks can be easily overcome when debris gets shoved inside the locking mechanism, Isom said.
Corrections officers are charged with regularly checking cell locks to ensure the locks are not compromised. But that changed after Friday's uprising.
"It has become clear that the management of debris in the locks (is) not an option," Isom said on the steps of the City Justice Center on Sunday. "We are moving 18 female detainees and 120 male detainees to the annex on Hall Street, and moving forward, that will allow us to more rapidly fix and upgrade many of the locks inside the (city justice center). It's the best option going forward for a facility that's been neglected for 20 years."
Isom said that moving detainees, rather than having corrections officers check for trash shoved into the cell door locks, is "the best of two bad options." He didn't have a timeline for when detainees would be moved out of the workhouse again.
Isom said it wasn't clear why the detainees rebelled this time, though in past incidents, criminal justice reform activists have called the uprisings protests by the detainees over jail conditions. Isom emphasized that more than half of the inmates in the pod did not take part in Friday's disturbance.
After previous security failures that resulted in smashed exterior windows and detainees setting bedsheets on fire, the city began working to repair cell door locks and security systems in the jail. But completing a full security upgrade is expected to take roughly a year.
"There are the same issues with the new locks — detainees do attempt to defeat those, but it's much more difficult," Isom said on Sunday. "It's a better situation with the new locks than the old locks."
The Medium Security Institution on Hall Street or "workhouse" was shut down entirely last month as part of a campaign promise by Mayor Tishaura Jones. City officials draw a distinction between the front portion of the facility built in 1966 and the units built in the 1990s. Detainees are now being housed in the newer part of the workhouse, which previously underwent renovations.
"During the past two administrations, no resources have been put into these (jail) facilities," Isom said. "Systematic changes not only in operations, equipment, facilities (and) staffing will take time to correct."
Several millions of dollars will be invested into improvements at the city justice center, Isom said.
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