ST. LOUIS — Early Monday morning, Sept. 19 on the shaded front steps of the St. Louis City Justice Center, demonstrators spelled out their concerns on black cardboard signs cut to the shape of tombstones. "Release the people," "end the suffering" and "no more jail deaths" are all among the list of demands.
Felecia Keeble was in the crowd holding a sign with her son's name and photo over her heart. She said Dennelle Johnson, known to his friends and family as "Nelly Bo," died at the Justice Center last month, just 10 days before was supposed to be released.
"He was supposed to come home on Aug.19, and he died on Aug.10, which was my 60th birthday," she said of her son's death. "With that being said, we want some justice."
Johnson was serving 120 days for misdemeanors when he was found unresponsive in his cell, his mother said. He had a history of diabetes and asthma, but his cause of death is still unknown. Keeble said she could have to wait up to 12 weeks for an official cause.
"He had called me and said 'Mama, come up here and talk to somebody because they just maced us for no reason, and I can't breathe, Mama. I can't breathe,'" she said, recalling her last conversation with her son.
During a regularly scheduled downtown safety briefing at the same time as the demonstration, St. Louis Public Safety Director Dan Isom acknowledged the inmate deaths at the Justice Center.
"We are working to kind of try to sort of minimize these incidents that have happened within the jail," he said. "Some of it is related to ongoing, pre-existing medical conditions that individuals have. (We're) trying to do a better job of triaging those people as they come in … Also, some of this has to do with illegal narcotics that oftentimes flow into jails."
Isom said he's willing to meet with the justice advocates to hear their concerns.
"We are always open to speaking with anyone in the community, especially if we can work together to make improvements," he said.
Demonstrators also demanded the release of more inmates, including those with serious medical conditions, and they want to end\ 23-hour lockdowns.
Before demonstrators walked away, they outline more messages in chalk. These ones were meant for the inmates several stories up: "We care."
Arch City Defenders has identified these people as the six who have died at the Justice Center since April:
- Robert Lee Miller (April 28, 2022).
- Augustus Collier (July 8, 2022).
- Dennelle Johnson AKA Nelly Boo (Aug. 10, 2022).
- Donald Henry (Sept. 3, 2022).
- Courtney McNeal (Sept. 6, 2022).
- And one person whose name and date of death are unknown.
Demonstrators previously planned to appear at a jail oversight board meeting Monday, but they said the meeting was canceled.