Six detainee deaths in St. Louis prompt investigation demand

Sep 14, 2022, 12:30 PM | Updated: 12:52 pm
FILE - Onlookers watch from the street as inmates chant and throw things from broken windows at the...

FILE - Onlookers watch from the street as inmates chant and throw things from broken windows at the St. Louis Justice Center, known as the city jail, on April 4, 2021. Civil rights advocates in St. Louis are demanding an investigation of conditions at the city jail following the deaths of six detainees since this spring. A coalition of groups on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, also demanded more information on each death, and called for the city to release from the City Justice Center detainees accused of lower-level crimes and those with serious medical conditions. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)

(Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Civil rights advocates in St. Louis on Wednesday demanded an investigation into the conditions at the city jail, where six detainees have died since April.

A coalition made up of the ArchCity Defenders law firm, Action St. Louis, Freedom Community Center, Metropolitan Congregational United, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the St. Louis public defenders office said it is seeking more information on the deaths at the City Justice Center, or CJC. It also called for the release of all detainees accused of lower-level crimes and those with serious medical conditions.

“The egregious number of deaths within a five-month period demands answers from CJC and government officials,” the coalition said in a statement.

A spokesman for the corrections department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the coalition, Robert Lee Miller died on April 28; Augustus Collier died on July 8; a person known by the street name Nelly Boo died on Aug. 10; Donald Henry died on Sept. 3; Courtney McNeal died on Sept. 6; and one other detainee whose name was not known died on some unspecified date since the start of April.

The coalition said detainees have complained about overcrowding and being confined to their cells for all but one hour a day. It also cited reports from detainees that pepper spray, bear mace and tear gas are often used on inmates.

“Between lengthy jail stays that average more than a year, dependence on ‘no bond allowed’ determinations, and the inhumane conditions at CJC, people are left in a cage to deteriorate with no hope of release,” the coalition said. “This is state-sanctioned violence.”

Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law and an expert on prison and jail conditions and mortality, cited data showing that around three-quarters of U.S. jails don’t average any deaths in a calendar year.

“I would say it’s alarming,” Armstrong said of the spate of deaths in St. Louis.

St. Louis jails have long been troubled.

A lockup known as the workhouse was notorious for decades for its inhumane conditions, including rodent infestations, extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. Mayor Tishaura Jones, a liberal Democrat elected in April 2021, ran in part on a pledge to close the workhouse. Corrections department spokesman Monte Chambers said it is not housing inmates but remains available if needed during “peak times.”

The City Justice Center was the site of two significant riots in early 2021. Detainees upset about often-lengthy pretrial detentions and jail conditions were able to get out of their cells due to faulty locks. They set fires and threw chairs and other things out of windows. No significant injuries were reported.

Jones blamed “failed leadership” for the jail’s problems, and Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass resigned in May of 2021. The city spent millions of dollars to fix the locks.

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Six detainee deaths in St. Louis prompt investigation demand