One jail riot for a troubled city like St. Louis is an embarrassment. Two riots in the span of two months, both involving inmates jimmying their own cells open in a supposedly maximum-security facility, constitute an unmistakable signal that people other than the jailkeepers are in control. If city officials cannot restore order — and it increasingly appears they cannot — then an outside authority at the state or federal level may need to intervene.
Judging by jail officials’ latest post-riot news conference, it’s clear that apathy and lack of urgency are a major part of the problem. Some members of the public demonstrated a twisted view of the crime reality in this city: They shouted support for the inmates’ wanton unlawful violence and destruction.
Mayor Lyda Krewson has just a few days left in office, and it’s quite possible she has decided to punt. Mayor-elect Tishaura Jones inherits a mess of gigantic proportions. Closing the medium-security “workhouse” jail, as Jones has pledged in her first 100 days, won’t solve anything and could even make the downtown jail problem worse.
Repairing both city jails — both necessary to meet the demand of the current jail population numbers, according to jail commissioner Dale Glass — will require tens of millions of dollars. Fixing the locks alone at the downtown Justice Center, which have allowed inmates to so easily escape from their cells and take over entire sections of the jail, will cost $13.5 million, Krewson says.
With so many other pressing needs in a city with an ever-shrinking tax base, Krewson and her predecessors put off investing significant money in the jails. Clearly, the situation has caught up with St. Louis.
Jones has adopted the mantra of progressive activists calling for the workhouse to be closed. Such a move would force all city inmates into the malfunctioning, understaffed, overcrowded, riot-prone maximum security jail.
Jones issued a preelection statement appearing to condone inmates escaping from their cells, breaking windows and setting fires as a way to express their frustration with the court system and what they see as unsatisfactory conditions inside the jail. But many of the downtown jail’s problems were caused by public pressure to prematurely vacate the workhouse. Glass told reporters that such comments had “a tendency to embolden” those disruptive inmates.
With more than $500 million in federal money coming to St. Louis, Jones will have levels of budgetary flexibility that Krewson didn’t have. She should use a portion of this money, perhaps along with a bond issue taken to the voters, to raise both city jails to modern standards. Or she can continue to ignore the experts, score a short-term victory by closing the workhouse, and create a future disaster that she or her own successor could have to deal with down the road — unless outside intervention solves it for her.