Officials: Faulty locks still a problem at time of St. Louis jail riot
The city started a project to replace the jail locks after the February unrest; the project requires new cell frames, doors, windows and electronic systems
By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — A faulty cell locking system that's plagued operations at the City Justice Center for years may have contributed to inmates escaping their cells, breaking windows and throwing items into the street in downtown St. Louis for the second time in two months, city leaders said Monday.
Inmates escaped their cells Easter Sunday in two separate areas of the jail's third floor and threw furniture, a computer, toilet paper and their own clothing onto the sidewalk as a group of about 50 to 75 onlookers gathered and chanted below. The detainees also started a fire on the exterior of the building and dangled a rope made of sheets out a window.
"This is a very dangerous and concerning situation of course, not only for the detainees but for all of our personnel who work here," Mayor Lyda Krewson said during a news conference Monday.
Dale Glass, who heads the jail as the St. Louis commissioner of corrections, said at the same news conference his staff was investigating the cause of the disturbance that began about 8:30 p.m. Sunday after what seemed like a typical day at the jail. But, Glass confirmed, detainees involved were being held in cells with locks that could be jimmied open.
"I can say that's a possibility that they were able to compromise the locks," Glass said.
He said inmates covered jail cameras so the number of inmates involved in the disturbance was unclear. No staff members were injured but a few inmates had minor cuts, he said. He did not know how inmates had started fires but said in the past some have used electronic wires to spark flames.
Sunday's disturbance was the fourth reported disturbance at the justice center since December and comes two months after a similar incident Feb. 6 when fourth-floor detainees manipulated the locks and also broke windows to throw items onto the street below. The windows on that floor remained boarded up Sunday when inmates broke through the glass on the floor below.
Richard Bradley, president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service, which is responsible for all improvement projects undertaken by the city, said the city started a project to replace the jail locks after the February unrest. The project requires new cell frames, doors, windows and electronic systems.
Bradley said inmates were removed from two units on the fourth floor after the Feb. 6 riot. Renovations on that floor that include new locks are expected to be completed in May, he said. After that, city staff will return inmates to that area and move onto fixing security on the rest of the jail's units. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $13.5 million, he said.
"We're doing everything we can as quick as we can to resolve the issue," Bradley said, adding, "We have to go through the proper engineering repairs in order to get the long-term solution. You could do something on a short-term basis that would not meet code, that would endanger the inmates. That would create all kinds of problems."
Glass said administrators found a secure place in the jail Monday to temporarily house inmates, and some inmates at the justice center will be transferred to the city's other jail, the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as the workhouse, so that they can be securely confined until repairs are completed.
Krewson in February formed the Corrections Task Force, a group of city and civic leaders who published a report March 12 advocating for reforms to the jail, including the need for more security measures.
"It was just a matter of time until this happened again," the Rev. Darryl Gray, a longtime racial justice advocate who chairs the task force, told the Post-Dispatch on Monday. "You cannot put detainees in cells that can be manipulated. You're putting corrections officers, other detainees and everyone that comes into that jail at risk."
The task force has focused on three areas with the most urgent need: solving the delays in the 22nd Circuit Court that result in prolonged pretrial jail stays, addressing concerns about jail conditions, and assessing the condition and security of the 20-year-old facility equipped to hold more than 900 people.
Guards and staff at the justice center had been aware for up to five years that malfunctioning locks could be jimmied by inmates, task force member and president of the St. Louis NAACP Adolphus Pruitt told the Board of Aldermen's public safety committee in March.
Understaffing was another major security risk, the report found. There were 88 job vacancies at the jail, resulting in "critical" staffing levels and likely requiring wage hikes to recruit and retain staff, according to the report.
Glass said several staff members called in sick on Sunday, which he said has been an ongoing problem for the facility, but added, "We were confident we were able to operate the facility." In the last month, Glass said the city has hired and fully trained about 20 corrections staff members and another 30 are in the hiring process, but vacancies remain.
Beyond a lack of security, members of the Corrections Task Force reported that conditions at the jail are a root cause of the recent disturbances.
"We found there's a problem with treating people decently," said Alderman Joe Vaccaro, 23rd Ward. "The problems with the locks go back years, but that is why this is happening now."
Detainees on Sunday chanted "We want court dates," Vaccaro noted, which is consistent with complaints of long delays for court hearings caused, in part, by the pandemic.
At the end of last year, felony cases in the St. Louis Circuit Court docket were taking on average a little more than 11 months to go to trial or be resolved, according to the latest statistics from the city court system. As of April 1, that timeline has grown to just under 15 months because of the ongoing pandemic that has put restrictions on state courts.
"We are moving cases," said Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer, the presiding judge for the 22nd Circuit. "Certainly not at the pace we would like to. We still have limits on bringing people into the courthouse, so we have to follow those guidelines."
Stelzer said the resumption of jury trials last month and trials scheduled throughout the year should help reduce the load of pending cases.
The task force found that inmates complained that other pandemic restrictions were inhumane, including the suspension of family visits and tight limits on their recreation time that keep inmates in their cells most of the day.
Glass said the jail has already begun to follow some task force recommendations, including vaccinating inmates against COVID-19, increasing recreation time and reinstituting visitation last week. Glass said he also aims to have tablets for the jail by May that will allow inmates to have virtual visitation with family and friends.
The task force report called for an independent oversight board with "unrestricted access" to detainees and staff, and more staffing at the jail, though that would require approval from the Board of Aldermen. Vaccaro, as chairman of the aldermanic Public Safety Committee, last month made the task force a subcommittee to move forward with recommendations.
Krewson was asked Monday if some city leaders should see consequences for the repeated uprisings. "Right now we're looking forward to begin to fix this situation," she said.
Krewson said the next mayor will need to find the money for long-term jail repairs and suggested it could be addressed using some of the approximately $517 million infusion of cash the city is expected to get from the federal stimulus bill passed last month.
Krewson is not seeking reelection and the two candidates running to replace her weighed in on the uprising Monday.
Treasurer Tishaura Jones said in a statement she was "horrified and deeply frustrated by the cries for help coming from those being held within the City Justice Center." She added that there "is an immediate need for change in our city's justice system" and that a "clear chain of command" is needed.
Alderman Cara Spencer said in her own statement, "It's clear that the city is failing to insure that staff and the city residents incarcerated there are safe." Spencer said she is committed to "competent and humane administration" of the jail and the closure of the workhouse.
While both Jones and Spencer have supported an ongoing campaign by activists to close the workhouse, they have disagreed on how soon that should happen.
Jones pledged to close the workhouse in the first 100 days after taking office. Spencer said while she remains committed to shutting down the workhouse, "until we get to the bottom of the real structural issues" impacting both jails, "I don't think it's responsible to say when."
Voters are going to the polls Tuesday to decide between the two candidates.
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