St. Louis prosecutor silent as prisoners suffer in sweltering hot jail
Protesters railing against extreme heat in one of St. Louis’ abuse-plagued jails were pepper-sprayed by police clad in riot gear last Friday and Saturday, as they called on city officials to shut down the dangerous facility. They say inmates at the Medium Security Institution, nicknamed the “Workhouse,” are living in cells with no air conditioning despite temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
Concerned with the safety and well-being of more than 750 people housed in the Workhouse and awaiting trial, approximately 150 people converged on the jail to voice concerns about the sweltering heat. Many chanted: “No justice, no peace! Free them from the heat.” According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, prisoners yelled “let us out” as they watched supporters fighting for the jail to be closed. At least one lawmaker, Missouri State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, participated in the demonstration.
Protesters mobilized days after a Fox 2 Now released a video of male prisoners crying out for help. A second video released by local news station 5 On Your Side showed shirtless male prisoners clamoring in the jail windows and shouting for assistance. The latter station also interviewed Missouri State Rep. Josh Peters, who argued that conditions in the jail constitute cruel and unusual punishment. During a recent jail visit, Peters learned about rodents biting prisoners, mold in dining areas, and people suffering in the heat.
“It’s not nice in there, all right? But it’s not deplorable,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said last week in response to growing public criticism. But problems at the mismanaged Workhouse are well-documented and tell a different story.
The overwhelming majority of inmates haven’t been convicted of anything — suffering behind bars because they are simply unable to pay bail following their arrest. According to a 2009 ACLU report, inmate abuse in St. Louis is “endemic,” with corrections officers encouraging brutal beatings or engaging in physical violence themselves. Sexual harassment and coercion is common, and staff members reported retaliation against those who choose not to participate in the “culture of abuse.” The report also detailed the “squalor” inmates face, including surfaces covered in feces and vomit. Concerns about extreme heat were raised by former corrections officers as early as 2011.
The issues are worsened by the fact that the jail is filled to the brim with people experiencing mental health crises. “The jail reports that more than 500 people are seeking mental health services while they’re in the jail,” says Executive Director Thomas Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders, a non-profit civil rights law firm. “In addition to the extreme conditions that are created by the weather, you’ve just got a bunch of people in there who are suffering a mental health crisis. If we as a society treated mental health and addiction issues as the health [crises] they were, we wouldn’t be punishing them with pretrial detention.”
But the person with the ultimate power to slash the number of people behind bars, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, has yet to speak up about the recent backlash.
Gardner is responsible for deciding who should be charged in St. Louis and why. At the start of her term, she said expansion of diversion programs were among her priorities and that “[w]e can’t have a one-sized-fits-all way of looking at things.” In June, she said her office isn’t “wasting time with the guy that smokes weed” and wants to devote more resources to fighting violent crime. Together, these statements indicate that she’s interested in making the system more fair, which makes it even more troubling that she’s been silent on the Workhouse conditions and protests.
According to Harvey, Gardner took over an office marred by scandal. Predecessor Jennifer Joyce was known for supporting — and participating in — rampant prosecutorial misconduct, and the newcomer has the monumental task of cleaning up the mess left to her.
Nevertheless, Harvey says Gardner could take several steps to reduce the number of people languishing behind bars. Her office could stop charging low-level, nonviolent offenses on behalf of the State of Missouri. Such cases could instead be handled at the municipal court, which has a special docket for people who struggle with mental health and substance abuse. Every Friday, the municipal court connects defendants to social workers and case managers who are better equipped to help them than jail staff. Gardner could also make bond reductions easier, following up on her campaign promise to stop opposing them.
“I’m disappointed in the silence,” Harvey says. “This would have been an opportune time to say, ‘We’re seeking…to reduce that jail population, because we know the conditions in there aren’t good and we want to do everything we can to ensure that people who shouldn’t be there aren’t there.’”
As Gardner remains silent, Mayor Krewson says air conditioning units will be installed in the next few days. But she maintains that steps are already being taken to solve the problem: inmates have been moved to a cooler floor and provided Gatorade, ice, and towels.
In the meantime, grassroots organizers with the St. Louis Action Council, Decarcerate STL, and the ArchCity Defenders are working to bail out as many people as they can. Due to their fundraising efforts, at least 15 people have been released.
“There’s been no legal determination of their guilt. The City of St. Louis owes a duty to them to provide for their care,” says Harvey.