Video: Insufficient staffing, faulty doors blamed in latest St. Louis jail disturbance

"My officers fear for their safety," said union rep. Jeff Haantz


By Rachel Rice
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The city's chief of security for the downtown jail said a disturbance Friday night could have been quelled more quickly if the facility was sufficiently staffed.

Several inmates and corrections officers at the City Justice Center were injured Saturday morning when about a dozen inmates attacked three other inmates inside the jail's recreation area, officials said Wednesday.

"It's no secret we're understaffed," the jail's chief of security, Maj. Tonya Harry, said outside the justice center Wednesday. "Another situation was going on simultaneously, and my staff was pretty much spread thin."

The downtown jail's faulty cell door locks also played a part in the incident, which took corrections officers about two hours to quell, with assistance from city police and sheriff's deputies.

In jail surveillance video of the incident, which began shortly before midnight Friday and continued until around 2 a.m. Saturday, multiple inmates inside the recreation area can be seen punching and kicking inmates lying on the floor while corrections officers watch through the glass outside the rec room door.

"I understand what it looks like, but on the same token, (we have) limited staff," she said. "There were things in the rec yard they could have used as weapons ... if we were to just go in, how many more would have been injured? Those are things we have to think about."

Harry said the corrections officers seen watching the violence didn't have the equipment to go in and shut it down, but they were able to identify which inmates were the assailants, which were the victims and which weren't involved. Once police and deputies arrived, the door was opened to get the victims out. Then inmates threw items at officers and rushed through the door. Officers used pepper spray.

All in all, three assault victims were left bloodied and bruised, one assailant was injured, and at least two corrections officers were injured when objects were thrown at them and they were knocked over when inmates rushed through the door, Harry said.

Jeff Haantz, who represents the jail workers, said he's heard from several dozen officers recently about their fear that inmates will rush out of their faulty cell doors and attack them. Turnover is high right now, he said, with many staff retiring, quitting or transferring out.

"They're terrified," Haantz said. "They're telling me it's the most dangerous job in the city of St. Louis."

The jail has dealt with multiple instances of riots and disturbances in recent months. Criminal justice reform advocates have said detainees were frustrated with poor jail conditions and a lack of court dates due to the pandemic.

In June, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones emptied the city's Medium Security Institution, known as the workhouse, consolidating inmates at the downtown jail, only to reopen a portion of the workhouse at the end of July after inmates again escaped their cells.

About 140 detainees were moved then from the City Justice Center because the workhouse was deemed a safer facility.

After Saturday's incident, 13 more inmates were moved to the workhouse, Harry said.

Two of the pods at the workhouse are open, she said, "and there's discussion to open an additional one. That would help alleviate some of the stressors we have."

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, chairman of the Public Safety Committee and opponent of the mayor's effort to quickly close the workhouse despite security concerns, said the latest time estimate to fully fix the security issues at the justice center is 18 months to two years. The entire third floor of the justice center is closed for repairs, he said, in an effort to speed things along.

"The right fix is to see what we can do to utilize as much good space in the workhouse as possible," he said. "All of this is going to take a year or two, and in the meantime, let's separate out who the worst offenders are" who are causing the problems.

Several of the inmates who were involved in the violence were supposed to be in their cells, Harry said, but they'd once again maneuvered the locks. Initially, corrections officers left them out while they weren't causing trouble.

"It's almost like playing musical chairs to try and figure out where to put the individuals causing problems," she said, "where other inmates can feel safe and to where the staff can feel safe ... it's kind of hard to secure those types of individuals."

It would be nice, Harry said, if she had more staff, including a special response team for all three shifts. Her staff on Saturday had initially been unable to get the equipment they'd needed, such as masks to protect themselves when deploying pepper spray.

Haantz also blamed the fact that some inmates get recreation during those late night hours, when the fewest officers are working.

"My officers fear for their safety, but they still showed up," Haantz said. "They showed up during COVID when most stayed home, and it's a thankless job that they have. I want them to be able to do it safely."
     
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