© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis Justice Center Protest Could Change The Conversation On Workhouse’s Closure

Inmates the St. Louis City Justice Center smashed windows and lit furniture on fire during a protest Saturday, Feb. 7, 2021. It was the third protest in a little over a month over conditions inside the jail.
Bill Greenblatt
Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center yell to those watching from the street Saturday morning during a seven-hour protest that public safety officials say started when a detainee began fighting with a corrections officer. It was the third protest over conditions at the jail since late December.

An uprising and protest at St. Louis’ downtown jail this weekend is leading to two different conclusions when it comes to the city’s other, notorious jail known as the Workhouse.

Inmates at the City Justice Center overpowered and injured a guard shortly before 3 a.m. Saturday and then took over an upper floor of the jail for nearly seven hours. Detainees were able to “jimmy” the locks on their cells to get out into common areas, said St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards. Corrections officers regained control around 10 a.m. No other guards and no inmates were hurt.

It’s the third protest at the justice center since late December, though the first to turn destructive. Inmates on Saturday smashed windows on the fourth floor. They threw furniture to the ground, some of it while on fire, and held signs calling for the release of inmates who have been punished for the earlier protests.

Edwards called the 117 inmates who took part Saturday “very aggressive, very violent.” The CJC holds pretrial detainees, meaning they have not yet been tried for the crime they were arrested for.

Activists frame the protest as the latest call to improve conditions in the jail after letter-writing campaigns and more peaceful demonstrations were ignored.

More than 50 inmates took part in the first protest on Dec. 29. In early January there was another protest over living conditions and lack of protective equipment against the coronavirus. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the jail before this weekend’s events, city officials said.

“This was certainly not a situation involving COVID,” Edwards said. “So, this was a bunch of folks that were defiant. This was a bunch of people that decided that they were going to engage in criminal mayhem.”

Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, called Edwards’ comments “pretty ridiculous, actually.”

Strode and other prison reform activists say COVID still played a part in the protest, along with longer-running issues, such as getting proper nutrition. Since the pandemic began, visitors have not been allowed inside the jail, and many court hearings have been canceled or delayed.

“We on the outside have been hearing these things. If city officials had no idea that this was happening, then it means that they're not paying attention to what's going on in the jails,” Strode said.

After all three incidents, inmates were transferred from the CJC to the Medium Security Institution, or Workhouse, as it’s often known.

Several organizations, including EX-incarcerated People Organizing, or Expo STL, and ArchCity Defenders, have been pressuring the city to close the Workhouse. City lawmakers have passed referendums to close the building, but it currently remains open, though with fewer inmates than typically housed there.

City officials warned last fall that closing the Workhouse could lead to overcrowding conditions at the CJC. There were 633 people in the CJC before Saturday’s protest. The jail holds 860.

“These events demonstrate the need to have two facilities at this time,” Jacob Long, spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, told the Associated Press on Saturday.

But Tracy Stanton, the lead organizer for Expo, said the events at the justice center are being used as an excuse.

“It’s being used as a means and a reasoning for keeping (the Workhouse) open, although it's definitely not safe for any human being to be in that facility,” Stanton said.

Strode, of ArchCity Defenders, said the conversation about keeping the Workhouse open in light of events at the CJC is political, not practical.

“I think the failure to adopt a different strategy around public safety generally, around policing and incarceration, we're seeing that failure in these jail protests,” he said. “So whether or not it extends the life of the Workhouse remains to be seen.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.