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About 120 St. Louis detainees headed to workhouse after another disturbance at downtown jail

About 120 St. Louis detainees headed to workhouse after another disturbance at downtown jail

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Detainees transported from Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse

A group of detainees is transported via a van and two buses from the Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse to the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — Less than two months after Mayor Tishaura O. Jones declared victory on a campaign promise to “close the workhouse,” the old city jail has reopened, prompted by the newer downtown justice center’s continued struggles with security.

The city on Saturday began moving roughly 120 detainees back to the Medium Security Institution, known as the workhouse, after yet another security breach.

Corrections officers responded around 7:30 p.m. Friday when inmates on the third floor jimmied locks, escaped their cells, joined other detainees who were on recreation time and caused a disturbance, said Jones’ spokesman Nick Dunne. About 25 people were involved. Officers used pepper spray to get them back to their cells, Dunne said.

The incident marked at least the sixth disturbance in eight months at the downtown jail. It was the fourth since February in which detainees escaped their cells — and the second incident of lock-jimmying this week. Other city officials, including Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and aldermanic public safety committee chair Joe Vaccaro, quickly pointed to the situation as the consequence of bad policy and vowed an inquiry.

“This is what we said would happen,” Vaccaro said Saturday. “They closed it way too soon. The way they did this was ridiculous.”

Jones vowed during her mayoral campaign to close the workhouse during her first 100 days in office, citing what she said were unsanitary and inhumane conditions. It was a key promise, one that resonated with progressives who helped push her to victory in April. Criminal justice activists had fought for years to close that jail, on Hall Street near the Mississippi River. They cast it as a symbol of everything wrong with the justice system: a place where the city’s poor were warehoused with bugs and had little in the way of medical care and edible food.

But critics had been warning that Jones was moving too fast — that the City Justice Center, on Tucker Boulevard across from City Hall, couldn’t yet handle the full load: It was understaffed, could become overcrowded and had inadequate safety features, such as working locks.

It has been a rough year at the downtown jail. In late December and early January, “disturbances” led staff to move almost 100 inmates to the workhouse. In February, roughly 115 detainees jimmied locks, opened cell doors and took control of the fourth floor, setting fires, clogging toilets, flooding parts of the floor and breaking fourth-floor windows.

On Easter Sunday, detainees escaped their cells again, breaking windows and throwing items out of the building. Some chanted, “We want court dates,” in reference to delays in court appearances and trials caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

After that escape, Richard Bradley, the city’s chief engineer, said the city had started a project to replace the jail locks after the February riot. The $13.5 million effort required new cell frames, doors, windows and electronic systems. He expected fourth-floor renovations to finish in May, he said.

But in May, Public Safety Director Dan Isom said the city was still working on the third floor and would move to the fourth and fifth after that.

“While we’re moving quickly to fix all of the locks and do upgrades, we’ve instituted changes that we believe will have a high probability of mitigating the same problems that previously (led to disturbances),” he said at the time. More corrections officers would patrol each unit, Isom said, and check locking mechanisms more frequently. In addition, the city would reroute controls that open all of the cell doors within a unit to a location where detainees couldn’t reach them, he said. A gate near the exterior windows was welded shut so detainees couldn’t break them.

In June, acting Corrections Commissioner Jeff Carson said that with some cells still not useable, the downtown facility — built in 2002 to hold up to 860 inmates — had room for fewer than 600 detainees. As many as a few dozen, he said then, were sleeping on the floor or on benches, waiting for space in regular cells.

Still, later that month, the city transferred the final workhouse detainees to the justice center.

The city’s online inmate tracker tallied 536 detainees at the justice center on Saturday.

Dunne said the city was transferring 18 women to the workhouse on Saturday, and 100 men in the next few days, to give crews time to fix the broken locks. He did not know when they’d finish.

“We are taking the best course of action for the safety and well-being of corrections staff and detainees at this time,” he said.

Vaccaro said he’s planning to call a meeting of the public safety committee Wednesday to get to the bottom of the matter.

He said jail officials told him it could take 18 months to fix all the locks downtown and the city needs to plot a realistic path forward.

“Maybe we can eventually get to one jail,” he said. “But we want to make sure that one jail is fixed.”

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Katie Kull covers public safety for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She previously wrote about local government for the Springfield News-Leader. In her spare time, you can find her cooking, riding horses or spending time outdoors.

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