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'Hell in a cell': Inmate's partner shares what's better, what's not at St. Louis jails one year after riots, assaults

City leaders have spent $9 million on renovating the downtown jail.

ST. LOUIS — City leaders spent part of last week talking about what's been done to make the city's downtown jail safer – and now, we're learning what the inmates think.

The I-Team sat down with a woman whose loved one has been incarcerated there since riots led to inmates breaking windows, setting fires and assaulting guards after compromising the locks on their cells.

She did not want to be identified out of fear that her partner could face retribution for her decision to speak out.

“It's horrible, it's absolutely horrible,” she said. “It's literally hell in a cell.

“Most of them are still awaiting trial, but yet they're treated as convicted already. There's a lot of innocent people still up there. There were some days I just remember him saying, 'if something happens…' It’s that thought that you’re never going to hear from him again.”

The woman agreed with a March 2021 civilian task force report, which identified key factors that contributed to the violence.

“It's not a hotel stay, but they are people and there are good people that make mistakes, and there's a lot of innocent people up there still awaiting trial,” she said. “They're not at prison where they've been convicted. It's a holdover. They're the same as me and you.”

The I-Team took the topics to Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah and other city leaders to create a progress report on each of them, and asked the inmate’s partner about her thoughts on each.

They include:

  • Repairing the locks
  • Hiring corrections officers
  • Consolidating jails
  • Moving cases faster through the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office
  • Boosting inmate morale

Progress on repairing the locks

Life without working locks on the cells keeps inmates on edge, according to the woman the I-Team spoke to.

“You have to stay awake 24/7, because you don't know what's going to happen, anybody can get out,” she said. “Anybody.”

The city gave an itemized list of the approximately $9 million it has spent of the roughly $20 million that it’s going to take to renovate the City Justice Center and get all of its locks fully functional.

That money paid for the renovation of the third floor, which is where about half of the jail’s population moved Friday. 

It included: 

  • $400,000 on design fees
  • $3.4 million for door locks, frames, glass and hardware and includes pre-purchased doors, locks, frames, glass and hardware for the remainder of the facility
  • $400,000 for day room furniture on three floors
  • $1.4 million for new control rooms/guard stations including pre-purchased structural steel for the fourth floor renovation.
  • $420,000 for security screens at exterior windows
  • $2 million on a control system with tablet controls
  • $900,000 on lighting upgrades to cells and day rooms
  • $140,000 Sally port entrances to day rooms

Clemons-Abdullah said she could not comment on when all of the locks will work in the building, “because of supply chain issues.”

Hiring effort still behind the need

The civilian task force report concluded the CJC was about 88 correctional officers short.

“There's not a lot of correctional officers there,” the woman said. “They're definitely outnumbered.”

The city contracted with a private security firm – which was supposed to be a temporary fix.

However, 10 private security guards are still working there at a cost of about $100,000 a month, according to the Mayor's office.

Clemons-Abdullah said she is still looking to hire between 30 to 50 new corrections officers.

The current ratio remains at 1 to 2 Corrections Officers per 60 inmates.

“National standards say that’s reasonable,” Clemons-Abdullah said.

Consolidating the Workhouse and the CJC

Another issue affecting the downtown jail is the city’s other jail known as the Workhouse, or the Medium Security Institution along Hall Street.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, Congresswoman Cori Bush and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner toured it in April 2021.

The women said it was still an inhumane facility and needed to be shuttered as soon as possible despite about $7 million in upgrades the city made following a lawsuit filed over conditions there by the ArchCity Defenders.

The woman the I-Team spoke to said the influx of about 150 inmates from that facility into the downtown jail last summer seemed unnecessary.

“Why close one and move all the inmates to the other one when it still needs work itself and the locks aren't working?” she said. “It was a complete upheaval for them when all of those guys came over from the Workhouse.

“It was overwhelming for the inmates. They're already over packed. And there's not a lot of correctional officers there. They're definitely outnumbered.”

Corrections staff had to move dozens of inmates back to the Hall Street facility – and about two dozen women remain there today.

City leaders are now calling it the annex.

Clemons-Abdullah said the goal remains to get all inmates under one roof downtown.

“You're asking me a $64 million question, and I say that because due to the supply chain issues, due to some of the hiccups we ran into, I can't set a time frame on when that will happen,” she said.

Cases are not moving faster

The woman we spoke to said one of the biggest reasons inmates rioted was due to slowdowns at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office.

“It was mostly younger people who were ready for trial, and they had enough,” she said. “When you're used to living like this, and you're sitting here awaiting trial for so long, it's like you have a fever.

“They're not even in prison yet. They're not even convicted. They're charged. Just waiting.”

In the March 2021 civilian task force report, St. Louis’s District Public Defender Matthew Mahaffey said people were waiting an average of 146 days in jail for probable cause hearings.

The last numbers he got from the Office of State Courts Administrator showed that wait time had increased to 178 days through October 2021.

“What that is meaning for a client is for about six months, you aren't really able to effectively address the case against you, like whether you want to plead, go to trial and negotiate with the state,” he said. “They're kind of in limbo.

“I usually like to couch in terms of it's kind of like being detained and not really knowing whether or not or why you're detained.”

The Circuit Attorney has two ways to file a case, by complaint or through a grand jury indictment.

If filed by complaint, there should be a preliminary hearing within 30 days for those who are in jail or 60 days for those who are out on bail.

If there is a grand jury indictment, Mahaffey said the person should not be detained and a warrant should be issued only after a grand jury makes a finding.

Gardner’s office has created somewhat of a hybrid approach, charging people through complaints first and then telling judges they’re waiting for grand jury indictments, he said.

“There's been no change in the fact that they file everything by complaint, even if they intend to go to the grand jury, and that is a big reason we're seeing the continued delays,” Mahaffey said.

Waiting takes its toll on inmates, Mahaffey said.

“They are seeing things like rents being foregone, car payments, the ability to have a job where they can live, how well they can move and visit family,” he said. “These are real implications for people, human beings that they're losing for longer periods of time because probable cause determinations are being delayed.”

Gardner’s office issued a statement in response to questions from the I-Team, which read: “The Circuit Attorney's Office remains dedicated to ensuring the safety of witnesses, victims, and the public at large while balancing the rights of the accused in its efforts to seek justice on behalf of the people of the City of St. Louis.”

Inmate morale improves for some

Abdullah-Clemons said she created a more nutritional menu, and the newly renovated floor will have TVs mounted from the ceiling in the center of a pod so every inmate can see the screen no matter where their cells are located.

“I kind of knew we were on track when one of them said, ‘Hey, can we have Chick-Fil-A?’” Clemons-Abdullah said. “So I kind of figured, OK, things are better.

“We're giving the inmates radios so they can listen to the TV. We have a new intercom system, and that's going to help us communicate better with the detainees as well.”

The woman whose partner is being housed there called Clemons-Abdullah’s remarks, “a start,” nothing that, again, only about half of the jail’s population is being housed in the newly renovated section.

“I think they've got a long way to go,” she said. “I really hope she sticks to it, but it needs it needs to move quicker,” she said. “Some of these men, they've been locked up three years awaiting trial. Three years. That's a long time.”

She said her loved one has agreed to go to therapy once he gets released from the jail. She believes he will be proven innocent.

“I can only imagine what he has seen and what he hasn't said to me, what he keeps inside,” she said. “I can't imagine what he's been through at all.

“He’s definitely one of the strongest men I know for sure.”

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