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St. Louis Inmates Take Over Units After Weeks Of Complaints

Above photo: Inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over two units in the jail on February 6. Doyle Murphy.

NOTE: Here is a statement from the inmates:

Sometime in the early morning, the inmates of the St. Louis Justice Center staged an act of civil disobedience because of the inhumane treatment by CJC Management concerning COVID-19 along with other issues. Expo StL was made aware that more than 50 inmates participated in a peaceful protest that took place on December 29. Nothing was done to address those issues and this morning’s uprising was the natural evolution of the actions of living and feeling human beings. Here now is a communication from inside the Justice Center itself.

On the morning of Tuesday, December 29, 2020 around 10 am CT, myself (Cortez Easterwood-Bey, IMN #6694) and more than 50 other inmates on at least two floors within Missouri’s St. Louis Justice Center (CJC), stood in solidarity outside of our cells as a form of peaceful protest to exercise our First Amendment right to free speech in a peaceful attempt to voice our grievances to be heard by CJC management that have gone unanswered after months (anywhere from 2 to 6 months or more) of following the established procedures for filing complaints and grievances. We recently learned from sympathetic guards/correctional officers (hereafter referred to as CO(s)), that these complaint and grievance forms rarely go past the CO whom the form was given to, let alone to their supervisor nor an outside entity or CJC official. our peaceful protest was unequally matched with resistance by CJC staff akin to the pre-Civil Rights Movement – we were subjected to tear gas, hosed down with strong water, and placed face down in inches of said but now contaminated water in order to be handcuffed, transferred to the known dilapidated Medium Security Institution (MSI) nicknamed the “Workhouse,” and placed “in the hole” without proper heat, dry clothing and new face masks. All this because we were trying to tell jail staff and management that we don’t want to DIE, we are hungry, we want proper ventilation, we are tired of being cold without being given winter clothing, we want proper PPE for COVID-19, we are tired of being price gouged in the commissary and vending machines, we want the mandated six “recs” per day, and we want visits from family and friends since there is a glass barrier between them and the inmates. How long do we inmates have to go without before one stops adhering to socially acceptable civil norms when they are blatantly and continuously being denied such – not only the ability to live but also other basic (prison) rights such as the ability to breath uncontaminated air?

Because of this incident, jail staff have threatened to destroy and discard our personal belongings, religious and otherwise, as punishment. Their purported excuse for this action is because of the tear gas they used has contaminated said belongings. So, we will no longer have our legal documents nor anything we or our family or friends purchased for us – food, clothing, toiletries, religious documents/books/items, photos, etc. This is our punishment for asking not to be infected with COVID and to have proper and adequate food, PPE, etc.?

To my knowledge, there are at least 12 lawsuits filed by other inmates due to the outcomes and actions of jail staff at CJC for this initially “peaceful protest” that has been quelled by correctional officers so the media and public are kept unaware.

On New Years Eve, there were already 51 of us in the hole in one “pod”, which is supposed to hold 60 people pre-pandemic, that were healthy and uninfected with COVID. However, prison staff decided to add 11 more inmates, some of whom were visibly infected with COVID!

This is genocide.

Prior to this peaceful protest that is now being reported as a “riot”, there were 24 inmates in my pod KNOWN TO BE INFECTED with COVID by jail staff, but instead of properly quarantining them, they kept them in the pod and with their cell mates in a 6 foot by 9 foot cell. 24 infected inmates soon turned into almost 50 infected inmates in less than 48 hours!!! That’s over 90% of the inmates housed in ONE pod of 60 persons!!! Further, COs are telling us that not only are they NOT going to test us but such testing is voluntary even if the inmate is visibly exhibiting the classic symptoms of a COVID infection. When those of us who are healthy request to be tested for COVID, we are denied and persons from the detention center regardless of their COVID status are continuously mixed in with the uninfected population within the actual jail/CJC, which houses over 800 inmates and more than 60% of those are currently visibly and audibly infected with COVID and are probably not getting proper/adequate medical attention.

Many of us have not yet gone to trial. There is at least one inmate who has been locked up at CJC for FIVE YEARS without going to trial. So how is it that the St. Louis Justice Center staff are allowed to be our judge, jury and executioner during this deadly pandemic???

We don’t want to DIE from SARS COVID-19, especially not at the hands of correctional staff. We are tired of being purposely exposed to other inmates and detainees who visibly have COVID. Jail staff won’t test inmates but claim that current pod members have been exposed to COVID even though we have not been tested during the entire arrest and detention process yet COs are constantly placing untested people, healthy or infected, in a jail cell, pod or holding area, with healthy people.

Even though we are inmates and regardless of whether we have been found guilty of a crime we may or may not have committed, our request is not unreasonable. This IS genocide. We are being treated like the Jews during Hitler’s regime. Instead of Germany we are in America. And the jail is being ran much like the concentration camps. But because we are black and brown and don’t fit the historical standard of American beauty, we are treated less than. We are being treated worse than George Floyd. Instead of one officer with his knee on one Black man’s neck for almost 8 minutes, we have several officers and agents of the Missouri, and more specifically the CJC, who are knowingly not following the COVID guidelines and protocols set forth by the CDC and US Department of Justice.

We are HUNGRY. We are pleading for not only proper nutrition but portion sizes that are befitting of an adult male. The lack of proper and adequate sustenance is known to weaken the immune system, thus making any person more susceptible to any disease but especially the highly contagious COVID virus. We get the same chunk of bread-like cake for every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner). I have been in CJC for almost two months and have yet to be given any fruit, have only once been given a “salad” that consisted of three tightly stuck together pieces of lettuce and one sliver of a shredded carrot. Our vegetables, if we are given them, consist of canned corn or green beans. The commissary and vending machines (in the facility or online for purchase by our family and friends to send to us, which is received bi-weekly) consists mostly of highly processed and junk/snack foods that are grossly overpriced compared to the Missouri prisons and normal retail outlets accessible to most American citizens.

We are tired of being COLD when the temperatures outside are also cold. The COs verbally refuse to turn the heat up, even in the detention/holding facility, citing they are trying to keep all from getting COVID. We have not been given proper clothing to deal with such temperatures within the actual facility. Most of the world is struggling financially so there are very few of us who are recently detained during this pandemic whose family can even afford to purchase a thermal top or bottom or thicker socks via the online commissary. The inmates are not working, and many of us newly detained have not worked during this pandemic, but even if we had we either don’t have access to those funds and/or have depleted them in our attempts to purchase food from the commissary and vending machines after we are given our “trays” (breakfast, lunch or dinner) that barely have portions nor nutrients acceptable for a ten year old child let alone a grown man.

We need our RECREATION BREAKS to stay mentally and physically healthy. Per correctional guidelines, inmates are to be given six recreation hours per day. Since I have been detained at CJC, we get less than three and it’s mostly at the discretion of the guards with seemingly no set time periods or systematic adherence to the standard CDC guidelines. For example, one or more pods are let out of their cells between 7a to 9a for 45 minutes, then around 3p for another 54 minutes, and maybe around 11p for 15-20 minutes. To myself and others, these actions by CJC-MSI staff seem like an effort to not fully perform the duties for which they are getting paid to perform in accordance with standard operating procedures and CDC and DOJ COVID guidelines and protocols. I have found that if I want to exercise (pushups, etc.) in my cell or during rec, I must do so in the morning rec so I have enough time to take a shower. I save my commissary/vending and phone calls for the afternoon rec. All this because we are not given 6 rec sessions/hours, time is short and we may not get the 3rd/last rec that is much shorter on time and at a time where business calls cannot be made.

We need INFORMATION to research our cases. We have not or only sporadically given access to the jail’s law library during recs. There are also only six tablets provided to one or more pods housing 60+ people. These tablets are supposed to allow us access to the jail’s law library and also, for a fee, be able to communicate with our family and friends via text messaging who have a SmartJailMail account. Most of the times, said tablets are inoperable because they weren’t charged properly between recs and/or will not hold a charge. Further, the tablets do not allow for video chatting with anyone.

We need to SEE our loved ones. The CJC website says visitation is allowed and special allowances for such may be made to family members or friends who reside out-of-town. However, this is a lie. All inmates have been told that there is no visitation due to COVID despite the fact that in the visitation area at CJC the inmates are separated from the visitors by a glass partition and wall.

We need but are not given proper PPE. Yet COs are walking around in what appears to be hazmat suits. Inmates are only given a standard face mask bi-weekly. Many don’t have one because it broke, became dirty, wet, etc.. Payphones, vending machines, tablets, etc. are not sanitized after each use and tables, common areas, etc. are not sanitized after each rec. We need more types of PPE (gloves, N95 masks, face shields, etc.) to protect us against our cellmate who is infected with COVID whom the COs purposely place in our cells and refuse to remove healthy inmates or quarantine the infected ones in a separate area or facility.

I personally was NEVER tested for COVID during my entire arrest and lockup experience (October 14, 2020 to present). Not given a temperature check, COVID test kit nor nose swab, nor blood check. I have been denied my repeated requests for such. After my arrest, I was placed in the detention/holding facility attached to CJC. I was denied access to a shower and clean clothing for at least two weeks. It wasn’t until I had an outside person to contact my parole officer and a visit was made that I was given a shower, notified of why I was arrested, given a standard jumpsuit and thin (and too small) footwear, and then transferred to the jail side of CJC. During my time in holding, officers were constantly moving detainees in and out of the holding area I was in, especially during the day. The area was not cleaned nor sanitized. I was not given any PPE during that time. All of this escalated my exposure to this deadly and highly contagious COVID virus.

My detainment in the jail side of CJC has been, for the most part, no different to my initial detainment, as indicated above. How is it that not only do I have to protect myself against violence from much younger inmates, I now have to be strategically conscious of protecting my desire to continue to live and breathe unencumbered by a deadly pandemic-level worldwide virus because correctional staff intentionally place me and others in dangerous and hazardous conditions, which further lends us to intentionally get COVID in a short time frame, in some inmate’s cases this happens within 24 hours of their cellmate or they themselves being exposed to another inmate or guard who is handling them after dealing with a previous inmate(s) who’s visibly and knowingly infected. We are only given a basic face mask every 2 weeks. No gloves or other PPE is given nor can we have any mailed to us by our family nor friends. How can we socially distance in a 6 foot by 9 foot cell with no ventilation in an open plan/air facility that is kept cold and we are denied and not provided with additional clothing (jackets, gloves, hats, etc.) nor blankets. How can those of us who are not sick stay healthy if we are not given nutritious and portions that sustain us. Yes we are inmates yet many of us have not been tried for our supposed crimes. Many of us also have families that we cannot see, barely are able to talk to because their funds are running low or are non-existent for us to call them collect or message them via SmartJailMail.

We feel like POWs in a foreign land in hostile territory. Because of our blackness/ancestral ties to Africa or Latin America, we are being treated less than human. We are dying at CJC in unheard of numbers and being intentionally infected at alarming rates.

In my homeland that is the civilized country of America… THIS IS GENOCIDE!

More than 100 inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center took over two units of the jail early this morning, shattering fourth-floor windows and setting small fires as they called out jubilantly to a crowd of supporters who gathered on the street below.

The uprising began around 2:30 a.m., and detainees held control of the units for more than six hours before teams of city sheriff’s deputies and police regained custody.

For weeks, tensions have been high at the downtown jail. Inmates staged two protests in late December and early January to complain about COVID-19 protocols and other conditions in the facility, where the majority of the city’s detainees are now housed.

This morning’s uprising was the biggest and most public of the three. St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said at a news conference that it began with a clash between an officer and one inmate. Other detainees jumped in and soon overran the unit as the injured officer escaped to safety, according to Edwards. Multiple inmates were able to jimmy the locks on their cells — a known problem in the jail, Edwards said — to join the group.

“The locks don’t necessarily lock,” Edwards said.

Men in a second unit also let themselves out of their cells at about the same time. Both units are on the fourth floor but separate. The men then forced their way into adjoining hallways but never took control of the floor itself, remaining separated on the west and east sides of the building. In all, the two groups included 117 inmates, according to Edwards.

On both sides of the building, the men smashed windows and launched whatever they could through the openings. On the west side, which faces Tucker Boulevard, everything from plastic stools and digital monitors to packets of ramen noodles hit the pavement. On the back side of the jail, facing 11th Street, an entire elliptical machine landed among a file cabinet, chairs and other debris. Rolls of toilet paper extended like streamers across the pavement.

“We’re going to do that shit all day,” one man yelled after inmates threw a panel out of the west windows. “It ain’t going to stop.”

On the Tucker side, inmates lit pieces of cloth on fire at the window ledge. One man set the bristles of a straw broom alight and held it over his head like a torch.

At a recent public safety hearing, city officials revealed there had been a December surge of COVID-19 cases among inmates and more than 80 people housed in St. Louis’ two facilities had tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic. But Edwards dismissed that as a motive for this morning’s uprising, saying there currently are no cases of COVID in the jails. He described the breach as a one-on-one scuffle between a guard and an upset inmate that ballooned into a larger problem. He emphasized that no hostages were taken or demands made.

“This was not a situation where we were required or asked to negotiate with any of the detainees,” Edwards said. “So this was not a situation where there were demands being made by anyone. These were just very angry, defiant, very violent people that we house at the Justice Center.”

But Blake Strode, executive director of the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders, said inmates have been airing grievances for weeks — the city just hasn’t done anything about them. ArchCity has a jail hotline (314-643-8773) to take calls from inmates and their families. Like the Bail Project, ArchCity has received a surge of calls since mid-December from inmates concerned about COVID-19 spread. Other repeated complaints have included freezing temperatures, harsh treatment by officers and inadequate access to medical care.

“I can only tell you that we’ve heard the same demands over and over and over again,” Strode said.

After the protests in December and January, the city responded by moving dozens of inmates to the Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse. (One of the signs that inmates hung out of the broken windows this morning read “Free 57,” an apparent reference to the men who were punished with new lockdowns during one of the earlier protests.) Jail reform advocates have worked for years to shut down the Workhouse, citing brutal conditions. It appeared they had finally pushed the city to make that happen last year, but officials have been slow to act. The majority of people incarcerated in the city (876 today, according to the city’s corrections site) now stay in the newer City Justice Center across from City Hall, but the Workhouse remains in use.

After officers regained control of the fourth floor of the Justice Center today, 55 inmates were relocated to a more secure, segregated unit on another floor, while 65 others were shipped to the Workhouse.

“These are very, very violent men that are housed in these two units,” Edwards said.

Milton and Strode both pointed out that inmates in the city jails are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent. They accused Edwards of using fear-mongering to distract from legitimate issues raised repeatedly by inmates. They also worried that city officials would use the uprising to justify keeping the Workhouse open even longer.

Both organizations have worked to free inmates during the pandemic, arguing that the cash bail system preys on the poor, hitting minority communities hardest. In St. Louis, inmates typically spend months locked up if they can’t afford bail.

“In that situation,” Strode said, “you have very many people that are, rightly, upset.”

The men held control of the units and hallways for more than six hours before law enforcement officers released tear gas into commandeered spaces and began taking everyone into custody. Shortly before 9 a.m., officers and deputies wearing gas masks and helmets appeared in the newly emptied windows, leaning out of the openings with fire extinguishers to blitz embers still smoldering on a concrete ledge. No inmates were injured. The officer involved in the initial scuffle was being treated at a hospital but was expected to be OK, Edwards said.

The mood during the uprising, both on the fourth floor and in the crowd of supporters cheering from the street, was celebratory. But the incident followed weeks of unanswered complaints from inmates and crackdowns by jailers, advocates say.

“Since the middle of December, we’ve been receiving emails and reports from families and people who are incarcerated about the constant mistreatment of inmates inside of the jail,” said Michael Milton, advocacy and policy manager for the Bail Project in Missouri. “From how they’ve handled COVID, from how they’ve handled even food and nutrition, [inmates] have had several different demands about the treatment inside of CJC.”

Inmates and their families have told the Bail Project that officers have retaliated against detainees who raised concerns about other “visibly sick” inmates, even changing housing assignments to force them to share cells with the ill inmates in question, Milton said.

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