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Nearly $20 Million Needed To Fix St. Louis City Jail

Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center gather around the third floor window on April 4, 2021. Inmates appeared to throw objects out of the windows and start a fire
Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center gather around a third-floor window on April 4. Inmates have long complained about the long wait for trials and hearings.

St. Louis Public Safety officials said up to $19.5 million could be necessary to fix and upgrade the St. Louis City Justice Center security, including locks, doors, control panels and lights.

The latest estimate came from Public Safety Director Dan Isom, who addressed the matter during a recent citizens advisory committee on spending meeting.

City officials said they hope to use money from the latest federal coronavirus relief fund to pay for a portion of the $19.5 million cost.

Isom said all of the upgrades to the downtown jail, which have started, are expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2023.

“These upgrades will put us in line with a completely up-to-date Justice Center that will be good for the protection of detainees but also certainly the protection of my hardworking correctional officers who do a great job every day,” Isom said.

The upgrades follow a string of uprisings at the jail since late last year in which inmates have broken out of their cells and complained about the jail’s conditions and delayed trials. After the latest incident, some detainees were moved to the jail known as the Workhouse, which had been shut down earlier this year.

Inmates and advocates have long protested the conditions at both jails, citing poor treatment from guards and inhumane conditions. A federal lawsuit also alleges staff violated the constitutional rights of inmates by using tear gas on them and depriving them of water.

Some members of the committee and prison reform activists questioned the decision to focus on the jail’s security upgrades and not programming. Isom said changes to jail security should be prioritized to ensure conditions are more humane.

But officials need to address the underlying conditions at the jail, including reducing the number of people incarcerated for non-serious crimes, said Mike Milton, executive director of the Freedom Community Center.

“When we look at the protests, we look at the uprising that happened at [the City Justice Center], they were asking about court dates. This is not an isolated event to just talk about the locks,” Milton said. “We know that the lock needs to be fixed, a jail is supposed to have locks. At the same time, there must be a more cost-effective way that we can fix those locks.”

Isom said in the spring that decreasing the city’s jail population for non-serious and nonviolent crimes is a priority and would require collaboration among public safety officials, police and the circuit attorney’s office.

Isom has long said upgrades to the City Justice Center are overdue.

“If you don't have control in terms of the locks and doors on the facility, then not only is it a danger to corrections officers, it's a danger to detainees as well,” Isom said. “When we can do that, and we can make sure that everyone is safe, and we can have proper controls of the population, then we can begin to add programming, resources to all the detainees, so that conditions are more habitable and livable.”

Milton hopes the city prioritizes the conditions and locks simultaneously.

“We can do both of these things at the same time,” Milton said. “We can figure out how the administration can work with the court to lean on pretrial release, we can figure out how we can fix the locks and staff up. It doesn't have to be a sequential thing.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.