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St. Louis Jail Officials Blame Second Uprising On Faulty Locks, Inmates, Activist Support

The day after inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center broke out of their cells, smashed windows and started a fire, city officials again blamed faulty locks in the downtown jail.

The city has begun replacing security doors that more than 100 inmates breached two months earlier, but the incident Sunday night happened on a different set of doors on another floor of the jail. Until every lock can be replaced, city officials said they plan to move some inmates to the city’s jail in north St. Louis, commonly known as the Workhouse, while guards at the downtown jail monitor locks for tampering.

City leaders during a press conference Monday did not offer another interim solution to prevent inmates from hacking cell locks. Neither Mayor Lyda Krewson nor St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass said they would take fault for the uprising.

“It's safe to say the detainees can be resourceful if they want to do something,” Glass said. “And we try to combat it. That's what Corrections does.”

Glass also blamed activists and media coverage of the last uprising at the jail for “emboldening” inmates and motivating them to break out of their cells again.

The jail holds more than 700 inmates, the vast majority of whom have been charged with crimes but are awaiting trial. Inmates on Sunday night protested living conditions and demanded court dates, chanting from the third-story window: “We need help” and “We want court dates.” The demands are similar to those that inmates at the jail made in February.

Many have been waiting months for courts to process their cases. The city’s Circuit Court recently saw its first jury trial in months, and more trial dates are now set through August, said Judge Michael Stelzer, who supervises the court.

“Unfortunately, until recently, we have not felt comfortable or within the guidelines from our Supreme Court and in the health department to bring jurors back into the building,” Stelzer said. “But we have started doing that now.”

The court is prioritizing holding felony jury trials for people charged with murder, rape and other serious crimes, Stelzer said. He added that inmates charged with lesser crimes can request court dates.

The coronavirus pandemic has made holding jury trials difficult over the last year, St. Louis District Defender Matthew Mahaffey said.

“If COVID continues to be manageable or not increase in its severity on a local level, we should hopefully see more jury trials coming, going forward,” Mahaffey said.

The Missouri Supreme Court recently amended its rules about preliminary hearings. Effective March 1, courts must hold preliminary hearings within 30 days of felony complaints being filed if a defendant is in jail, and within 60 days if not.

Mahaffey said that the public defender's office has had 207 jury trials since fiscal 2018, and that 86 ended in not guilty verdicts.

“That's 41%,” Mahaffey said. “So if you're talking about incarcerating people for extended periods of time, just to get to trial, and then for 41% of our trials are ending in not guilty — those people, they should not have been incarcerated.”

Krewson appointed a task force to review jail living conditions after the first time inmates broke out of their cells and smashed the jail’s exterior windows in February. The task force issued a report in March that concluded short staffing and coronavirus protocols at the jail also fueled the uprisings.

In the weeks since, Glass said he has restored visitation, hired 20 guards and offered the vaccine to inmates. About 160 inmates signed up on a waiting list to receive shots, Glass said. The city health department has already vaccinated 30 other high-risk inmates at the jail.

“We weren't mistreating them,” Glass said. “It wasn't cold, they were fed, they had clothes. They were being treated for COVID.”

Replacing every lock in the downtown jail could cost the city $13.5 million, said Rich Bradley, president of the city’s Board of Public Service. Bradley leads a $1.5 million project to fix locks on the jail’s fourth floor, where inmates escaped from their cells in February. He estimates that work will be done in May.

Bradley said that upgrading the lock system is a complex process and that moving quickly on a short-term solution could risk endangering inmates and cause other problems.

Krewson echoed Bradley’s comments: “These locks are not padlocks. These locks are not, you know, push-button codes. This is an electronic system. So it's complicated.”

Figuring out how to pay for the upgrades will soon fall to the next administration, as Krewson leaves office April 20.

Inmates on Sunday night broke out of cells while the guards were on a lunch break. Jail officials were not previously aware locks on other floors had the same issue as locks on the fourth floor, Glass said.

Glass said during the press conference that he did not know yet how many inmates were involved because they covered security cameras. No guards were injured. Four inmates had cuts from the broken glass that required medical attention.

Glass said he is in the process of hiring 30 more guards to staff the downtown jail. Reports came out last month that the jail was down 72 guards when inmates first broke out of cells in February.

No guards are at fault for what happened Sunday night, Glass said.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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 A yellow shirt from an inmate lies on top of the St. Louis Justice Center's entrance as a trace of Sunday night's uprising, during which inmates smashed windows and threw objects out. The boarded windows above are a remnant of the protest in February.
Kayla Drake / St. Louis Public Radio
A yellow shirt from an inmate lies on top of the St. Louis Justice Center's entrance as a trace of Sunday night's uprising, during which inmates smashed windows and threw objects out. The boarded windows above are a remnant of the protest in February.

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