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High heat, little AC at St. Louis jail worries activists; official says inmates cared for

The majority of people housed at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis do not have air conditioning. (July 19, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The majority of people housed at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis do not have air conditioning.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. with state representative's request — Activists say this week’s near-record heat is dangerous for inmates at St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution and is one more reason the jail needs to be shut down.

The majority of the 700 inmates at the jail, also known as the Workhouse, live in portions that don’t have air conditioning, St. Louis corrections commissioner Dale Glass said. Temperatures are routinely 5 to 10 degrees warmer inside the 51-year-old building than outside; activists allege that’s another violation of inmates’ rights.

Glass acknowledges that battling the heat is nothing new, but said guards and inmates have plenty of access to water, Gatorade and ice. There also are cooling stations and inmates are routinely rotated into air-conditioned areas like the law library and dining hall.

“We do what’s humane. And we try to make sure, not that it’s 72 degrees, but that the temperatures are such that their health is not at risk,” Glass said.

That did not comfort Gwennetta Jones, who visited her son Wednesday.

“I’m worried that he might have heatstroke, maybe even die in there,” she said.

Guards have been trained to recognize when an inmate is getting too hot, Glass said, and inmates who already have health issues stay in air-conditioned sections. He said medical personnel are available 24 hours a day.

Ice doesn’t last too long in 100-degree heat, said Kennard Williams, an organizer with Decarcerate St. Louis.

“Those resources aren’t going to last for an exceptionally long time, and people are still going to be exposed to hazardous temperatures,” Williams said.


Some inmates stood at open windows on Wednesday, July 19, 2017, while others called out to passers-by, saying things like, "Please help us."
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Some inmates stood at open windows Wednesday while others called out to passers-by, saying things like, "Please help us" and "We need your help." Officials say the temperature inside the jail is about 5 to 10 degrees warmer than outside.

The heat prompted state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, to ask the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to investigate conditions at the jail. He's also seeking for House Speaker Todd Richardson to create a commission to do an investigation.

Even though the city runs the jail, many of the inmates there face state charges, which is why Peters believes HHS and lawmakers should get involved.

"I believe it is well within the jurisdiction of your Department, paired with a constitutional and humanitarian responsibility by the State of Missouri, to take action," Peters said.

The concern isn’t just for the inmates. The heat shortens tempers, making guards’ jobs harder.

“Poor working conditions make it difficult to control the inmate population and we see the lack of action from the City as a very real safety concern for our officers,” according to Jeff Haantz, the business representative for the Carpenters District Council of St. Louis, which represents the jail’s guards. “It is unfortunate that another summer of triple digit temperatures has arrived in St. Louis without our city leaders finding a solution to this problem.”

Williams is among the activists who will hold a protest Friday at the jail. The Facebook page for the event claims inmates are “literally screaming for help from the windows.”

Glass said that’s true, but added the inmates like to put on a show when they know cameras are outside.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.