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Messenger: Jail superintendent’s email offers insight into root causes of St. Louis uprisings
Tony's Take

Messenger: Jail superintendent’s email offers insight into root causes of St. Louis uprisings

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Erika Wurst was checking on a client who was in jail at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis, known colloquially as the workhouse. It was April 1, just a few days before the latest uprising at the city’s other jail, the downtown City Justice Center.

Wurst is the deputy district defender in St. Louis. She wanted to set up a meeting with her client and ask that he not be placed in protective custody. The victim in the case is related to corrections officers. “Since it’s the guards he’s concerned about, not other detainees, he thinks PC would make him feel actually less safe,” Wurst wrote. Her client is accused of murder.

A corrections employee at the workhouse wrote back and set up the meeting between the public defender and her client. Then came another email, from Jeffrey Carson, superintendent at the workhouse.

“The inmate is playing the attorney,” Carson wrote to his employee, copying Wurst, perhaps unintentionally. “Hopefully, she doesn’t bring him contraband.”

Wurst was not pleased. Here was the man in charge of keeping her client safe, a client who like most people in the city’s two jails is being held before he’s been convicted of a crime, and Carson was dismissing his concerns out of hand, while also accusing Wurst of a crime.

She wrote back and copied the judge in her client’s case. “I’m sure you know that a (corrections officer) at CJC was recently charged with facilitating a pretty brutal assault on a detainee there. … I find it hard to believe that you really can’t see why he would be afraid for his safety at MSI. Truly, I am shocked at how quick you are to dismiss our concerns about this. … It is your job to make sure detainees there are kept safe and well cared for, so please, do your job and take our concerns seriously.”

Wurst shared the email string with me after the latest uprising at the CJC, the fourth incident since December in which detainees got out of cells with broken locks and took over a floor of the facility. On Easter, they destroyed property, broke windows and lighted fires, while some chanted: “We want court dates.”

That’s a reference to an issue that Wurst and her boss, District Defender Matthew Mahaffey, have been raising for several months with Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, the judges of the 22nd Circuit Court and appeals judges. It’s an issue that began pre-pandemic. Defendants are being held in jail for, in some cases, six months or longer without a preliminary hearing.

The two issues — dismissing detainees’ complaints about conditions and forcing long, pretrial confinements that appear to violate a recent Missouri Supreme Court rule change — are related. In March, the state’s high court said defendants must have a preliminary hearing within 30 days. Those hearings are the defendants’ first opportunity to face the evidence against them. But it still isn’t happening in many cases.

“Judges, prosecutors, jail administrators: They all seem to be just looking for reasons not to believe what our clients say about the conditions in the jail,” Wurst told me. “The long pretrial incarceration periods while cases wait for a probable cause finding comes down to the exact same thing: (the associate circuit court judges) don’t value our clients’ lives enough to make sure the prosecutors actually have enough evidence to warrant keeping them confined, to warrant them losing their freedom, their jobs, their homes, their families.”

This week, the public defender’s office filed a writ asking the Court of Appeals to enforce the 30-day rule. In the case in question, Graylon Lindsey has been held in the City Justice Center without bond for more than 90 days. Associate Circuit Court Judge Michael Colona keeps granting continuances because the prosecuting attorney’s office says it plans to seek a new indictment through a grand jury. That’s a longstanding practice in the city.

But there is no statutory “grand jury docket” like the one that Colona has created, the writ argues. Lindsay is accused of felony domestic violence and being a felon in possession of a gun. He has an extensive record and, according to court records, suffers from serious mental health issues.

“At Relator’s next court appearance … 110 days will have passed since Relator’s initial appearance without any preliminary hearing, and Relator will have been confined in jail the entire time,” the writ, filed by public defender Brendan Kottenstette, reads. “There is no basis in law for either ‘Grand Jury Docket’ or for Respondent’s refusal to hold preliminary hearings in cases filed by criminal complaint where the Circuit attorney announces an intention to seek an indictment.”

Gardner and the judges have defended the current preliminary hearing process. Previous writs filed by the public defender’s office have failed. This is the first filed since the new rule took effect in March.

Justice is not holding a man in need of mental health care in jail indefinitely because at some time in the future the prosecutor promises the judge to find another way around a court rule intended to protect the civil rights of a defendant.

“These are real people who have been staring at the same four walls of the same tiny cell for months,” Wurst says. “And when they hear over and over again that the associate judges aren’t making the prosecutor show a shred of evidence to justify keeping them there, in violation of the rules, of course they get desperate.”

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