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Police use pepper spray to disperse protest outside St. Louis jail

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ST. LOUIS • With scorching temperatures expected to reach well over 100 degrees this weekend, protesters are again demanding closure of the city’s medium-security jail, which doesn’t have air conditioning.

Police used pepper spray to disperse a crowd who had protested for about two hours outside the workhouse Friday night. The spraying came just minutes after officers ordered the crowd to leave.

Those hit with the pepper spray had been among a diverse group of about 150 demonstrators, some of whom held signs with slogans that included “We treat animals better.” State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, joined them.

At one point, several protesters climbed under an exterior chain-link fence around the workhouse and a few scaled a second fence closer to the building, but they stopped short of going over its razor wire top.

St. Louis police officers monitored the protest and at times stood between them and the fences.

Chants from the protesters of “Let them go” were met with a “Let us out” response from inmates inside who gathered at windows and waved towels.

Tamitra Williford was among the protesters. “I’m here for the sake of humanity,” she said.

The heat is just one of many complaints about the jail at 7600 Hall Street, which is technically called the Medium Security Institution but known more informally as the city “workhouse.” Allegations of unsanitary conditions and abuse from guards continue to circulate about the facility, which houses 769 people awaiting trial.

In 2009, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union accused the jail of allowing inmate assaults, sexual harassment, negligent medical care and squalid conditions. In 2012, in both civil and criminal complaints, guards at the jail were accused of setting up “gladiator”-like fights between inmates for amusement. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice said the jail had one of the highest rates of reported sexual abuse among the country’s jails, at 6.3 percent.

Critics who have long called for its closure say the city’s poorest residents, unable to afford bail, are the ones stuck in the troubled facility for months on end.

“Certainly one of my goals is to reduce the number of people who are there by moving them through more quickly, getting them to trial more quickly,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said Wednesday.

In the meantime, City Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass says there is a heat safety plan in place. The cafeteria and other common areas are serving as cooling stations, and he says 24-hour medical help is available.

Inmates and staff also have access to wet towels, water, Gatorade, popsicles and ice to help stay cool, Krewson said.

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed has called for temporary air conditioning units to be installed in the workhouse to get prisoners through the hottest months of the summer until city leaders can work out a more permanent change.

In a statement on Friday, Krewson said the city was already taking bids for the costs of repairing windows and installing air conditioning units in the older parts of the building.

It’s one of several efforts the city’s corrections division has explored since voters rejected a bond issue in 2015 that would have funded infrastructure improvements throughout St. Louis, including air conditioning at the workhouse, she said.

The St. Louis Action Council and Arch City Defenders raised roughly $10,000 to bail out 15 people on Friday. They hope to raise enough to bail out as many as 20 inmates, St. Louis Action Council organizer Kayla Reed said.

Having done similar bailout fundraisers in the past, the groups received 100 requests for bail when they decided to hold another in response to the heat wave.

“These are next of kin, these are mothers, partners, children who are sending us emails,” Reed said.

Those who know someone in the shelter have reached out to share stories of inmates with medical conditions such as asthma exacerbated by the heat, inmates who aren’t receiving as much water as they need or inmates passing out, Reed said.

Missouri state Rep. Joshua Peters, D-St. Louis, has also pushed for the Legislature to examine the conditions of the jail. In a letter to House Speaker Todd Richardson, Peters has requested a special committee to tackle the issue and an investigation through the Missouri Department of Health and Senior services into its “deplorable and unsanitary health conditions.”

Krewson pushed back on his statements on Wednesday, saying she toured the workhouse about a month ago.

“It’s not nice in there, all right? But it’s not deplorable. It’s not unsanitary,” Krewson said. “It wasn’t as hot a month ago as it is today. But it was OK.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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