Inmates gather on the fourth floor of the jail on Saturday morning.
A new corrections task force will review St. Louis' jail operations following a trio of protests at the downtown facility, including an uprising on Saturday in which 117 inmates took over two units
, smashed out windows and set small fires, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced today.
Advocates for people incarcerated in the city say the men were reacting to weeks of ignored complaints about dangerously inadequate COVID-19 protocols, deplorable conditions and harsh treatment by corrections officers.
City officials have largely dismissed the complaints as inaccurate, leading to a battle of narratives.
"I understand the public and maybe even some of the media may not believe what we tell you, so let's have a very-well-respected, quick-moving task force to confirm that or not," Krewson said. "Otherwise, detainees say one thing, and [St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass] and his people say another thing."
Mike Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, will chair the task force. The other members are St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt, former Missouri Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, public health executive Dr. Pamela Walker, the Rev. Charles Norris of St. James AME Church, jail consultant Brad Hompe and the chair and vice chair of the city Board of Alderman Public Safety Committee, Aldermen Joe Vaccaro and Jeffrey Boyd. Krewson said she hopes they will begin meeting this week and have recommendations within a few weeks.
The mayor spoke this afternoon alongside Glass and city Director of Public Safety Jimmie Edwards in a conference room on the first floor of the City Justice Center. On Saturday morning, three floors above, inmates were able to jimmy the locks on their cells, take over two separate units and hallways on the front and back of the building and hold control for more than six hours. City officials say it began with a fight between a corrections officer and inmate. Other inmates jumped in, and then dozens swarmed out of their cells as the guard escaped. The corrections officer was checked out a hospital and released.
Leaders of ArchCity Defenders, the Bail Project and EXPO St. Louis have all said that they'd received a surge of calls since mid-December from inmates and their families about unsafe conditions in the jail. Saturday's uprising was a result of legitimate, but unmet concerns, as well as a show of solidarity with inmates punished for protests in December and early January.
This afternoon, Glass denied there were issues accessing personal protection equipment, health care or food — all issues raised in the inmates' complaints.
He insisted that there are no active cases of COVID-19 at the downtown jail and that the corrections department's pandemic protocols have been effective in dealing with outbreaks, including one in December. Overall, he says, there have been 80-85 cases of the coronavirus in the jails since the first inmate tested positive in June.
Edwards said one of the biggest complaints, the length of time inmates who haven't been convicted sit in city jails awaiting trial, is out of the corrections department's hands. He pointed out that judges decide who is sent to the city's two facilities and how quickly their cases are heard.
On average, detainees are held more than 300 days, and that has risen through the pandemic, according to city jail statistics. Edwards likened the city's role in the judicial process to the "landlord," tasked with keeping people safe while they're in jails.
Krewson said the new task force will review the recent uprisings and make recommendations about jail operations.
"We believe that we run a very good operation here," Krewson said.
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