ST. LOUIS — The U.S. Marshals removed at least 60 inmates during the past week from the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis, apologizing to prosecutors and defense attorneys for the inconvenience, the I-Team has learned.
Federal public defenders are criticizing the move, saying it puts a strain on the very inmates city leaders claim to be advocating for by shutting down the city's other jail: the Medium Security Institution, better known as The Workhouse.
Mayor Tishaura Jones had announced the week before the federal inmates were moved that her administration plans to shutter The Workhouse by July 1 and consolidate all of the city's detainees in the downtown jail, where federal prisoners are kept.
The downtown City Justice Center facility has been the site of at least two riots this year, which included an attack on a guard, broken windows, water damage and fires. The first riot in January took place on the fourth floor, which houses mostly federal detainees.
Lee Lawless, the federal defender for the Eastern District of Missouri, said many of the facilities St. Louis City detainees went to are at least an hour away from St. Louis.
“Federal prisoners are the same people that everyone, certainly the new administration, is concerned about,” Lawless said. “They’re almost all young Black men.
“Despite any of the problems there might be with The Workhouse, or the jail, being stuck a couple hours away in a place where you are completely isolated is not a good thing. I wish there would have been some efforts made to reach out about this, but the ‘Close the Workhouse’ campaign was, in my mind, a Storming of the Bastille. It developed a life and meaning of its own divorced from reality. And, at this point, there’s no going back. The mayor has made a strong political statement about it, her credibility is on the line, I don’t anticipate it will change.”
Jones' spokesperson Nick Dunne sent a statement to the I-Team, which read:
"The feds are aware of our plans, which is why they are starting to relocate some of their detainees. We are watching the budget closely, however the conditions in which we keep our detainees is a higher priority. We agree with the public defenders that moving around detainees is a source of hardship for the detainees, which only further justifies why we support only having one city jail. Our preference would be to keep detainees as close to home as possible so they can keep contact with their families, but unfortunately we don't have any control over where federal detainees are moved."
The feds are being publicly mum about the motive behind the move. In an email obtained by the I-Team, Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Anne Alred wrote:
“The U.S. Marshals Service is doing some redistribution of inmates in custody. We apologize as this could end up being less convenient for you as a prosecutor/defense counsel, but we are doing our best to communicate the changes and we ask you try to understand considering the current situation in St. Louis.”
Alred asked attorneys to give Marshals about 24 hours before calling to find out the prisoner’s new location.
The City of St. Louis gets about $8 million a year to house federal detainees at the downtown jail, and, before the exodus, the city housed about 200 of them, according to city officials.
It’s unclear how city leaders plan to handle the loss of revenue, but Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom told the I-Team in a recent interview the administration believes The Workhouse must close despite millions of dollars in upgrades in recent years because it remains inhumane – even if it means profitable federal inmates may leave.
“We're interested in doing the right thing and sometimes the right thing may cost a little bit of money,” he said.
Lawless said he spent about an hour driving to Warrenton Saturday to meet with a client because he needed to get a document signed, whereas he used to be able to walk a few blocks to the downtown jail and meet with his client. The travel time is also time lost to serve his other clients.
So far, the feds have moved only federal inmates who do not have any state charges pending against them in addition to their federal charges.
He said many facilities have made detainees available via video connections especially during the pandemic, but, it’s not the same.
“It’s one thing when you’re doing a video chat with a college roommate, or a family member, but when you’re talking to somebody about their life and they haven’t ever met you and the system is asking them to believe you it’s a whole lot easier if you can meet face-to-face for a while.”
John Lynch is the Criminal Justice Act Representative for the Eastern District of Missouri. In that role, he leads a panel of private attorneys who judges call on to act as public defenders should the public defender's office be unable to handle a case for any reason.
He added how the detainees from St. Louis are primarily Black men who are now being housed in jails in mostly rural white communities.
"They're upset, and when they're upset, they aren't in the best state of mind to really understand what's going on with their cases," he said.
A spokesman for the Marshals sent a statement to the I-Team, which did not say why the inmates were moved out of the city facility.
“Generally speaking, the U.S. Marshals are responsible for providing safe, secure and humane housing for federal prisoners remanded to its custody. The Marshals make housing decisions based upon various factors such as security, availability of bed space in a particular facility, court appearances and other factors.”