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“We Want Court dates!”

A spokesperson for Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office indicated that “two violent and dangerous disturbances” originated from two units on the third floor.

A similar uprising at CJC occurred on February 6, at approximately 2:30 a.m. Protesting the lack of COVID-19 protocols, staff retaliations and other grievances, roughly 100 prisoners took control of two units at the St. Louis city-run jail. They also broke windows and set fires during that six-hour siege.

The April revolt was the fourth such incident at the jail since December 2020.

Prisoners at CJC have repeatedly expressed concerns over the lack of heating, poor food quality, and improper clothing for several months. Recently, they reported instances of staff punishing prisoners who voiced their grievances over jail conditions.

Because of the pandemic, visitation at the jail has been canceled. Telephone access had also been suspended as a result of the recent protests.

A local advocacy organization, ArchCity Defenders, set up a jail hotline in response to the February incident. Blake Strode, executive director of the organization, said it was vital for prisoners to have an open line of communication with the outside world. When “these protests occurred about a month and a half ago, our hotline was ringing off the hook,” Strode said. The prisoners have used the hotline to counter the official narrative of the conditions inside CJC, especially the jail’s handling of COVID-19 at the facility.

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 10% of prisoners at every facility are randomly tested for the coronavirus and those who test positive are isolated. Moreover, official state numbers indicate there are no COVID-19 cases at the St. Louis facility.

Prisoners and their families, however, have reported otherwise. In an interview with NPR’s Michel Martin, Strode said ArchCity Defenders had received “very consistent complaints” regarding the lack of COVID-19 protocols at CJC. They “focused around COVID and people that had tested positive or were displaying symptoms being housed with people that didn’t have symptoms,” Strode elaborated.

Jail officials deny allegations that CJC is not adequately addressing the health and safety of its prisoners. Jimmie Edwards, St. Louis director of public safety, dismissed their complaints, and responded that the prisoners “were just very angry, defiant, very violent people that we house at the Justice Center.”

To avoid criticism about the jail’s handling of the pandemic, officials have characterized the protests as “riots.” According to Strode, they “tried to reduce it to some disruptive folks who were acting out criminally for no reason.” Some officials insisted the “riots” were aimed at reinstating visitation privileges, claiming that prisoners were upset about not being able to get contraband from visitors.

Strode scoffed at such characterizations. “What I do hear,” he told NPR’s Martin, “is a lot of efforts to really dehumanize these folks and sort of ignore the basic human needs that people have for contact, for, you know, basic health care.”

Those health concerns are real. The Marshall Project has reported that almost 400,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, with close to 2,700 losing their lives to the deadly virus. Infection rates inside American correctional facilities have been four to five times higher than the general public.

Lawmakers and advocates across the country have called for greater accountability in the state and federal corrections system. Implementing COVID-19 protocols, improving conditions inside jails and prisons, and providing adequate health care are key priorities. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, data shows that the most effective tool to contain and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus is depopulation.

COVID-19 poses unique challenges inside detention facilities because social distancing for staff and prisoners is virtually impossible.

Not surprisingly, most facilities, like CJC, have declined to adopt decarceration, according to the Initiative report.

The protests have brought much-needed attention to the health and safety risks prisoners face inside the CJC. Without a voice, they are left at the mercy of staff and officials who view prisoners—even those in pre-trial detention and presumed innocent—as criminals rather than people.

Giving prisoners a voice is essential. It is central to achieving the goals of advocates and activists seeking to reform the criminal justice system in America. Tracy and Latrell Stanton, activists with St. Louis’ branch of Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), agree. “The voices of currently and formerly incarcerated people must be centered in this work. The people closest to the problems are closest to the solution,” they said. 



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