Inmates stage uprising at St. Louis jail dogged by unrest

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Detainees broke windows, set a fire and threw chairs and other items out of a third-floor window during the second significant uprising in two months at a downtown St. Louis jail, leaving city leaders again searching for answers.

At one point Sunday night, inmates at the City Justice Center lowered a rope made of tied-together bed sheets, though none tried to use it to escape, according to media reports.

The aftermath of the uprising was evident Monday. Third-floor windows were destroyed; black charring from the fires lined the areas around the building; the sidewalk below was dotted with splatter marks from unknown debris; an orange jail shirt dangled from a ledge.

“This is a very concerning and dangerous situation, of course, not only for the detainees but all of our personnel who work here,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said at a news conference.

During the uprising, up to 75 people on the ground shouted support for the inmates. The same jail was the site of a similar uprising on Feb. 6. Two smaller skirmishes also have occurred since December.

The latest trouble began began just before 9 p.m. Sunday, and soon, inmates were breaking windows and tossing items to the ground below.

Around 10:15 p.m., sheriff’s deputies in riot gear appeared. Firefighters used a hose to douse flames. The inmates moved away from the broken windows by about 10:30 p.m.

Then around 11 p.m., inmates broke windows on the other side of the jail and began throwing objects again. That second wave of unrest was quieted within a half-hour.

Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass said three or four inmates suffered cuts from broken glass, but none required hospitalization. No staff members were hurt.

Some inmates were heard yelling demands for court dates. Proceedings have been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Supporters of the inmates also have complained about what they perceive as lax COVID-19 protocols inside the jail, and about other conditions inside the jail. The same concerns were at the heart of the February uprising, which involved more than 100 detainees and sent a corrections officer to the hospital.

Glass denied that jail conditions are substandard.

“We weren’t mistreating them. It wasn’t cold. They were fed. They had clothes. They were being treated for COVID,” he said.

After the February incident, city leaders acknowledged that some cell locks were susceptible to compromise. Glass said the corrections staff wasn’t aware that the cells where inmates got out on Sunday also were susceptible. Exactly how they got out remains under investigation.

In the meantime, the city is spending $13.5 million to replace locks and doors, said Richard T. Bradley, president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service. The process is expected to take several months.

Some detainees may be moved to a second jail, known as the “workhouse.” That jail has been under scrutiny for years amid complaints about unsanitary conditions.

A task force was appointed to look into issues at the downtown jail. Its chairman, the Rev. Darryl Gray, issued a report last month urging the city to create an independent oversight board to help oversee the lockup.

“What happened last night was avoidable,” Gray said Monday. “If the mayor and the commissioner for corrections had implemented the 13 urgent recommendations that were submitted by the task force, then they would have shown the detainees some good faith in responding to their concerns. And that has not been done.”

Gray said it was remarkable the city would keep detainees in a cell with broken locks.

“You have younger detainees who are simply frustrated for being locked up over 23 hours a day,” Gray said. “You can’t get to court. You don’t have visits. You don’t have enough time for recreation.”

Krewson bristled when a reporter at the news conference compared the jail’s mishaps to “Barney Fife in Mayberry.”

“Who should be held accountable?” she asked. “First of all, the detainees.”