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Community activists recall 1972 St. Louis jail protest, compare it to today’s conditions

(L-R) Tory Russell, Regina Dennis-Nana and Bobby Williams talked about the protest of prison systems in the past versus now.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
(L-R) Tory Russell, Regina Dennis-Nana and Bobby Williams talked about the protest of prison systems in the past versus now.
Credit Courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana
St. Louis City Jail inmates inside the chapel before the attack, July 11, 1972.

More than four decades ago, a three-day inmate sit-in protest over conditions at the St. Louis City Jail faced a violent end, with more than 30 inmates injured. That led to a 21-day protest outside the jail by activists demanding improved conditions in the cells.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with citizen negotiators during that protest in 1972 and compared the experience with the protests of today. Joining the discussion were Regina Dennis-Nana and Bobby Williams, who were both citizen negotiators during the sit-in protests 46 years ago.

Community activist and protester Tory Russell also joined the discussion to talk about the tactics of protests today.

Listen to the full discussion:


In March 1972, the Committee for Equal Justice (CEJ) was a citizen group made up of activists concerned about the conditions of the jails, including issues of overcrowding and lack of hygiene.

“The inmates were concerned about the lack of toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, towels, salt, food, hygiene – they had a whole list of things they were still concerned about that were taking place for some time,” Dennis-Nana said.

While people protested outside the prison, Dennis-Nana said citizen negotiators were a “multi-talented group of people” who negotiated and made a list of focused demands inside the institutions.  

During the City Jail sit-in, she said activists negotiated 12 demands in the jail, some granted immediately and others later. Some gains included $5,000 to improve food conditions, set up policy manuals, changes in visiting regulations, access to around-the-clock medical care and increased recreational activities.

But the negotiations were halted when violence broke out between an inmate and the warden. Williams was part of the outbreak that took place in the jail, where he said police hurt the activists.

Credit Courtesy of Regina Dennis-Nana
Inmates being escorted out of St. Louis City Jail by police in riot helmets.

“A lot of heads were banged, including my own,” Williams said. “Only thing I could hear were the women, the dogs barking, the tear gas and the inmates.”

‘It’s 1955 but with Wi-Fi’

Russell, who’s been involved in the Ferguson protests and other civil rights causes, said he doesn’t see many improved conditions from 1972.

He gave the example of the protests last July at St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse.

“I go to the Workhouse at least once a month. The conditions are still the same. We went in the summer when the protests started again and it seemed like we were reliving history,” Russell said. “It’s 1955 but with Wi-Fi.”

Dennis-Nana and Williams will continue the conversation about the 1972 protest and how it connects to contemporary issues in the prison system at the Missouri History Museum.

Related Event:

What: "Justice in the Prison System: From the 1972 Sit-In to Today"

When: January 30, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, 5700 Lindell, St. Louis, MO 63112

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.