St. Louis activists demand better jail conditions, policies after deaths of two detainees
Advocates for St. Louis jail detainees are again calling for the city to release more information on conditions at the city justice center and for Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah to resign.
Activists on Monday organized a rally outside the jail, where they demanded that city officials overhaul jail policies, cease using chemical sprays on detainees and end 23-hour lockdowns.
The rally is the latest move by community leaders and activists to improve conditions at the jail following a string of deaths at the center. Last month, detainees Carlton Bernard and Terrence Smith died at the jail.
Smith’s children, Jasmine and Sonny Smith, spoke at the rally. Jasmine Smith said her father suffered a seizure and stroke after falling from his bed, but they still have questions.
“We need the help, we need the answers, we need to figure out what’s really going on inside and what they’re hiding,” she said.
Oversight board members also are demanding better sanitation at the jail. Sonny Smith, who also has been incarcerated at the jail, said detainees are often housed in unclean conditions rooms and given poor food.
“It's like being in a cage where it’s just full of wild dogs and you just got to fit in and make the best out of it,” he said.
The city’s Detention Facilities Oversight Board was formed last year to investigate jail complaints. But board members said that they haven’t been able to effectively perform their duties and that jail leaders have obstructed access to important information on the jail investigations. The board first called for Clemons-Abdullah’s resignation in June.
Late last month, Detention Facilities Oversight Board Vice Chair Janis Mensahwas forcibly removed from the jail after two police officers handcuffed them and threw them to the ground.
Mensah said they have an Oct. 4 court date on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest.
Mensah said that they’ve faced more obstruction from city leaders to investigate jail conditions and that Mayor Tishaura Jones held a meeting this month on jail conditions though members of the oversight board were not invited.
“There is no public transparency that is invite only,” Mensah said.
A spokesperson for Jones said she has been meeting with faith leaders and advocacy groups and recently discussed ways to improve the jail.
“Mayor Jones appreciates the frank discussion and honest questions posed by these community leaders and looks forward to future opportunities to collaborate in support of our justice-involved population,” the spokesperson said.
A Department of Public Safety spokesperson said in a statement that Clemons-Abdullah has spearheaded efforts to change the city’s jails, including managing more than $18 million in jail safety upgrades.
The recent controversies have led other elected officials to call for a new commissioner. Board of Aldermen President Megan Green called for the city to release more information on the jail and to allow the detention oversight board better access to the facility. Alderman Rasheen Aldridge, who was at the rally, also called for a new commissioner.
“We made it very clear that there's a lack of transparency and there needs new leadership,” Aldridge said. “Even though it’s not going to happen overnight, that’s why we need answers now, we need to ensure these roadblocks are taken away so that people can actually do their job.”