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Task force to interview inmates at St. Louis jail in aftermath of riot

Task force to interview inmates at St. Louis jail in aftermath of riot

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St. Louis jail tensions 'boiled over' amid COVID-19 worries

Inmates yell from broken windows at the St. Louis City Justice Center on Feb. 6, 2021. Advocates for St. Louis jail inmates say the uprising at the downtown jail happened in part because detainees were worried that the jail wasn't doing enough to protect them from COVID-19. Advocates say it's part of a long history of indifference toward inmates at jails in St. Louis. But city leaders say there are no cases of COVID-19 at the downtown jail. (Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)

ST. LOUIS — Members of a task force formed following a disturbance at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis will interview inmates next month as part of the panel's investigation into a series of disruptions at the jail.

In addition to the interviews, the panel will examine documents provided by the city, take a tour of the CJC and speak with corrections staff and others to investigate claims of unsafe conditions for inmates. The task force intends to submit a report of its findings by mid-March.

“The accusations that have been made are serious,” the task force’s chairman, the Rev. Darryl Gray, told the Post-Dispatch on Monday, pointing out that some inmates haven’t gotten their day in court. “I’m sure they’re feeling some kind of way, as all of us would be. We have to look at what transpired at least going back to mid-November. We have to look at the grievance reports, the medical reports … the (water and) food situation.”

Interviews with at least 10 inmates will be held the first week of March, members of the panel said during a meeting Monday.

The City Counselor's Office had wanted only two members of the panel to conduct interviews at the jail but the group wants at least three of its members conducting the interviews and touring the CJC.

Mayor Lyda Krewson formed the task force after Feb. 6, when inmates on the fourth floor of the CJC jimmied the locks on their cells to get out, set fire to bedding and broke out exterior windows, waving signs and shouting to onlookers below.

Jail reform activists have said that disturbance and at least two others in the preceding weeks were the reflection of inmates who were frustrated with inadequate food, low temperatures and poor protection from the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of the others on the task force with Gray are former state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed; Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd and Joseph Vaccaro; St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt; the former head of the city health department, Pamela Walker; the Rev. Charles Norris of St. James AME Church; and Wisconsin-based security consultant Brad Hompe.

Gray said they were told Monday that there are some documents they won't be able to review because of lawsuits filed by the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of inmates. The expectation is that the city will provide information that includes what food is given to inmates, explanations for why water is switched off and when, recreation hours, and grievance reports filed by inmates, panel members said.

Walker, who is vice chair of the task force, said during the meeting that she’d like to see “aggregate numbers” of how many inmates and corrections staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but “we’ve asked for it before and not gotten it.”

“I still think there are a lot of things we need,” Walker said. “I’ve reviewed all of the documentation submitted to us, all of the web pages we’ve been told to look at, and there’s a lot of information, but I still think there’s a lot of data that’s not there. The monthly reports are good — there’s a census, there’s medical (data), it shows what drugs were found — but we don’t have that for January.”

The panel later opened the virtual meeting to the public and one woman, Mary Lou Webb, said her son was held at the CJC several months ago under suicide watch, and he was put in the general jail population when he should not have been. He was denied toilet paper for four days, she said, after inmates used it to clog toilets. 

"I haven't been able to visit him or even had a video visit," Webb said. "He's mentally deteriorating in there. He needs a mental health facility where he can get help. They're making things worse and messing with his head with the things they're doing."

Rachel Rice • 314-340-8344

@RachelDRice on Twitter

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