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The Concerns That Drove Detainees To Mount St. Louis Jail Revolt

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to try to find out more about an incident at a downtown St. Louis jail Saturday morning that lasted several hours, leaving one guard hospitalized. Bystanders captured video of inmates setting bedding material on fire and dropping it out of broken fourth story windows along with chairs and other debris. And this is at least the third disturbance at the city justice center since December.

We called Blake Strode to try to find out more. He is executive director of the ArchCity Defenders. That's a legal advocacy organization. And he has been in touch with detainees, and so he's with us now to tell us more. Blake Strode, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

BLAKE STRODE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with what happened yesterday. Were there any specific demands that you know of? Was there something that the inmates were trying to call attention to?

STRODE: Yes. Well, we've heard really consistent demands and grievances over the past at least month and a half. As you said, there's been a series of protests in the jail, and it's been connected to a lack of COVID safety protocols - as we've heard from detainees and their families, real concerns about health and safety for those on the inside. Poor food quality is another theme, retaliation by jail guards, including retaliation in response to some of the earlier protests. And so we've really heard a very consistent story from both people detained in the jail and from loved ones on the outside who are concerned about their well-being.

MARTIN: And so you're saying that this third disturbance is of a piece with the earlier ones.

STRODE: Yes.

MARTIN: Is that your understanding? Because just a month ago, there were two different protests in the jail within a span of a week.

STRODE: That's right. So there was first a protest at the very end of December, and then one just a few days after that in early January. And around that time - ArchCity Defenders has a jail hotline that has been active for months to hear from people on the inside because we knew access would be very difficult during the pandemic. And so we've received calls on and off for the past 10 or 11 months. But when these protests occurred about a month and a half ago, our hotline was ringing off the hook. We were hearing from lots of folks, both inside and family members, who had these very consistent complaints. And they were really focused around COVID and people that had tested positive or were displaying symptoms being housed with people that didn't have symptoms. And people felt that they were being put at risk unnecessarily. And that's what we've been hearing for weeks since then. And so some of our local officials have said there were no demands around this particular uprising. But I don't think that's an accurate description of what's been happening.

MARTIN: Well, yeah, it's my understanding that the authorities - and we're talking about public safety director Jimmie Edwards and the jail commissioner, Dale Glass. It's been reported in the local media that they call the January protests a disturbance that happened for unknown reasons. And then they said - well, what is their response about the COVID situation...

STRODE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...You know, at the jail? I mean, what is their public statement about that?

STRODE: Yes, it's been more of the same. It's really disappointing that there's been a clear lack of transparency around what's happening inside of the jails. And yesterday, when this occurred, Jimmie Edwards, our public safety director, held a press conference in which he once again said there were no demands. We don't know why this happened. These are just violent, defiant people - and again tried to reduce it to some disruptive folks who were acting out criminally for no reason. But we know that's not true. It wasn't true a month and a half ago. It's not true now. So these are all related. These are - people are clearly organizing on the inside. They're clearly showing solidarity with other folks that they're detained with. And these are all of a part.

MARTIN: And your view is that this is directly related to COVID protocols, that there are people who are sick, and they're not getting adequate care, and they're not being adequately segregated from people who aren't sick - that there aren't adequate protocols to protect people from being sick. Is that - that's your understanding.

STRODE: Yes, I think that is at the root of it. And it is of a part with other forms of neglect and maltreatment inside of the jail. So much of it is around COVID. We've also heard complaints about other health conditions not being addressed, about nutritional needs not being met, as I said. In the workhouse, the other jail in the city, we've had a lot of complaints about frigid, cold temperatures in that jail. So it's just really a theme of the needs of the detained people not being met and that because of the very limited access to people on the outside, I think we've seen mounting frustration and people acting out in ways to bring attention to these problems.

MARTIN: To that end, though, what is the access to people on the outside? I mean, a lot of congregate facilities have essentially been closed to visitors for much of the past year in order to prevent...

STRODE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...The spread of infection. What is the visitation situation there? Can lawyers visit their clients? Can family members visit in any way at all? How is that being handled?

STRODE: Yeah, family members cannot - there's been no visitation at all at the jails really since the start of the pandemic. In some moments, lawyers are able to visit, although in most instances, those are phone calls that have been set up. And in recent days, and particularly surrounding this incident, even phone access to people on the outside has been cut off. So it's really just a situation that is begging for and creating the conditions for this kind of uprising.

MARTIN: OK, Blake, I have to ask you a tough question because this is something...

STRODE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...That I know that authorities will say. What authorities will say is that what they're really upset about is not being able to get contraband from visitors, and that that's really the source of it. Because the fact is that jails are hard to get into, but they're also porous in some way. And what I think that authorities will generally say when there's an uprising like this is that inmates are upset because they can't get access to the contraband that normally would be coming through visitors. And what would you say to that?

STRODE: Well, that's interesting. I actually - I haven't heard that at all from local officials here. I wonder if we will. But that's not been something that local officials have said. What I do hear is a lot of efforts to really dehumanize these folks and sort of ignore the basic human needs that people have for contact, for, you know, basic health care.

And I don't - it's not, in my view, appropriate to respond to requests for those basic needs by saying, you're in jail, and our only priority is to make sure that no contraband gets in. And that means we're going to cut off all access to the outside world, which is - which just further dehumanizes people. And I think there are certainly ways to address concerns about contraband that are not the sort of severe lockdowns and lack of access that we've seen in St. Louis jails.

MARTIN: That was Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. Blake Strode, thank you so much for joining us.

STRODE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.