UPDATED at 9:30 a.m. Monday with comments from mayoral candidates and the city.
ST. LOUIS — Inmates in at least two areas of the City Justice Center escaped their cells Sunday to break windows, shout to spectators and throw debris to the sidewalk below in the latest uprising over conditions at the downtown jail.
Inmates broke through the windows on the northwest corner of the third floor of the jail, below windows that were boarded up from the last riot in February. They threw furniture, a computer, toilet paper and their own clothing to the street below, and started a fire on the exterior of the building. Some chanted "We want court dates," a reference to delays in court appearances and trials caused by the pandemic.
About 50 to 75 supporters on the sidewalk below were protesting what they called "inhumane conditions" at the jail.
The inmates disappeared from the windows about 10:15 p.m., with sheriff's deputies in riot gear appearing a short time later.
Police had established a perimeter about a block away to keep more onlookers from gathering, but just watched the crowd in front of the jail from afar.
Just before 11 p.m., cheers erupted from the spectators as broken glass indicated a second incident — this time in the southwest corner of the third floor.
Inmates again threw objects to the street, including a large plastic chair that was immediately commandeered by a man who sat in the street to watch the action.
But this time the inmates were coughing, apparently from mace, with one repeatedly saying, "I can't breathe" and complaining of health problems.
They also lowered a rope made of bed sheets that had been tied together, but no one risked a climb down. After about 30 minutes, the inmates disappeared again, and officers in riot gear appeared.
Mayoral spokesman Jacob Long said in an email early Monday that the first of "two violent and dangerous disturbances" began about 8:30 p.m. He said there were no reports of serious injuries.
Both candidates for St. Louis mayor criticized the correctional system, with Treasurer Tishaura Jones saying in a statement Monday that she is "horrified and deeply frustrated by the cries for help coming from those being held within the City Justice Center."
She said there "is an immediate need for change in our city’s justice system," and that a "clear chain of command" is needed.
Alderman Cara Spencer said in her own statement, "It's clear that the city is failing to insure that staff and the city residents incarcerated there are safe." Spencer said she is committed to "competent and humane administration" of the jail and the closure of the city's Medium Security Institution, a second city jail that's commonly known as the workhouse.
The uprising comes after a similar incident in February when about 115 inmates took control of the fourth floor of the City Justice Center, where they set fires, clogged toilets, flooded parts of the floor and caused other damage, officials said at the time.
A report last month by the Corrections Task Force, formed after February's riot, called for an independent oversight board and said inmates were most upset about being locked in their jail cells “for most of the day," isolation from family and a perceived lack of COVID-19 precautions, the length of time they've been held awaiting trial and the medical care provided in the jail.
Officials acknowledged after February's riot that they'd struggled to deal with faulty cell door locks. An inmate told the Post-Dispatch that the faulty locks were well known to inmates but rarely did detainees taken advantage of them.
It wasn't immediately clear what prompted Sunday's uprising or how it happened.