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City Justice Center Gets A Close Look — And ‘Urgent’ Recommendations — After Feb. 6 Riot

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.
File photo / Bill Greenblatt
On Feb. 6, detainees at the St. Louis Justice Center started fires after breaking windows on the fourth floor. St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said the event started when a detainee began fighting with a corrections officer around 2:30 a.m.

Last month, more than 100 detainees at the St. Louis Justice Center revolted, attacking a guard, smashing windows and setting fires to protest their living conditions. The detainees held a floor of the jail for nearly seven hours.

On Friday, the task force created to investigate conditions at the jail released a report that seeks to explain what went wrong and what it will take to fix it. The report made 68 recommendations, 13 of them considered “urgent,” including upgrading the facility’s security electronics system and auditing the length of stay for detainees.

“It is very apparent that there is a need to examine the justice system as a whole and its effects on incarceration,” the report concludes. “The number of and lengths of the incarcerations taking place in the City of St. Louis is concerning and needs immediate analysis and change.”

The Rev. Darryl Gray, a longtime racial justice advocate, chaired the task force. In a little over a month, the task force conducted 13 meetings, set aside time for public input and received testimony from multiple organizations, the public defender, the St. Louis Sheriff's Office and the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as U.S. Rep. Cori Bush. On March 23, the task force will meet with St. Louis’ Public Safety Committee to discuss the report.

Gray plans to make an appeal to the committee to either keep the task force in place as a subcommittee or to begin the process of creating an independent oversight board with subpoena power and unrestricted access to detainees.

“This oversight board is a board that will be able to work specifically to address any and all issues that come out of [the Justice Center], or any correction facility for that matter... the Workhouse included,” he said on Tuesday’s "St. Louis on the Air." “That is the single most important recommendation that needs to be acted on immediately. If you do that as well, then you will show the public — you show the detainees, correctional officers, family members who agonize over what is happening in the Justice Center — that the city of St. Louis is serious about criminal justice reform.”

KSDK crime reporter Christine Byers also discussed her reporting on how the city’s Division of Corrections was about 72 guards short on the day of the riot. (Through new information from the task force, Byers said she’s learned that the facility was actually 88 guards short that day.)

The city’s personnel director said that the City Justice Center went from being fully staffed last spring to being badly short-staffed by February. He told Byers that he’d received no requests to hire anyone for the jail for close to a year.

But the city’s director of operations, Todd Waelterman, pushed back on that, Byers said.

“The city provided the director of operations to me, to address this issue in terms of, ‘Why did the staff get down so low?’ And he explained that they had made a request last year in June or July to hire about 32 corrections officers, and that they didn’t get a response from the Division of Personnel until some time in December,” Byers said.

What’s not contested is that, after the Feb. 6 riot, the city moved quickly.

“The Division of Personnel gave the city 80 applicants to interview in one week,” Byers said. “So I don’t understand, and it hasn’t been clearly explained to me yet, how it can go for so long, with the staff dwindling down, and then suddenly when there’s a crisis, they magically have all these applicants ready to go.”

Byers said it will be interesting to see whether the city’s next mayor will want to have the task force as a subcommittee under St. Louis’ Public Safety Committee and how the mayor will utilize the group’s recommendations.

“I’m thinking that there is a possibility there, that going forward, they could remain intact and see these recommendations through,” she said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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