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Inmates break windows, set fires in uprising at St. Louis jail

The disturbance was the fourth in as many months at the jail, where inmates are frustrated over pandemic-era conditions.

Inmates at the St. Louis City Justice Center broke windows, hurled furniture to the ground and set fires Sunday night in the latest uprising over pandemic-era conditions at the jail.

Videos and photos posted to social media show inmates hanging out of windows as a crowd gathers below to watch.

St. Louis police sent out an all-points bulletin at around 8:30 p.m. after inmates on the third floor of the jail started to cover cameras, NBC affiliate KSDK reported. Shortly afterward, inmates started throwing things out of smashed windows. And by 9:30 p.m., smoke was billowing from the broken windows.

An hour later, responders moved the inmates away from the broken windows and started to put out the fires, KSDK reported. By 11 p.m., inmates had moved to the other side of the third floor, breaking windows and starting to throw things again.

Image: Inmates cough and try to breath through broken windows after officers deploy a chemical irritant at the St. Louis Justice Center
Inmates look out of broken windows at the St. Louis Justice Center, known as the city jail, on Sunday. Inmates broke windows, set a fire and threw debris to the ground.Colter Peterson / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

It wasn't until about midnight that the incident was under control and workers were able to start boarding up windows, KSDK reported.

In a statement Monday morning, Jacob Long, the director of communications for Mayor Lyda Krewson's office, said in a statement sent to KSDK that "there were two violent and dangerous disturbances that unfolded at the City Justice Center downtown."

"Detainees became non-compliant, covered security cameras, smashed windows, and destroyed property," Long said, adding that there were no reports of serious injuries.

The Corrections Division, the police department, the sheriff's office and the St. Louis Fire Department responded, Long said.

State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge Jr. said "those in connection with the protest" had two demands: end cash bail and resume speedy and fair court hearings that have been delayed because of the pandemic.

"The detainees are being held without trial and unable to pay their bail, causing a system that disproportionately puts poor and Black people behind bars," Aldridge said. "If we care about justice, these systems need to change."

The crowd outside the jail included spectators, reporters and people joining to protest conditions at the jail. A man who took a chair that had been tossed out a window said the issues had been persistent and were simply boiling over.

Some protesters posed outside the jail's doors with signs and guns, KSDK reporter Casey Nolen wrote on Twitter. After at least two hours on the scene, Nolen left after one of the people with the guns started threatening to use it.

The mayhem is the fourth disturbance caused by inmates at the jail since December, according to The Associated Press.

In early February, about 115 inmates caused what Long called "fairly extensive" damage when they clogged drains and toilets, flooding the floors, and threw furniture, some of it on fire, out broken fourth-floor windows.

A corrections officer was attacked and treated at a hospital.

"I imagine they are under the same amount of stress due to Covid restrictions like the rest of us are," Long said at the time. "Courts haven't been hearing cases in the 22nd Judicial Circuit. Their family visits have been restricted. But also they are acting out, and that is the current situation."

A problem that allows inmates to free themselves from their cells by tampering with the locks played a role in the February uprising, said the city's director of public safety, Jimmie Edwards. The problem had persisted since December, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's unclear whether the locking issue contributed to Sunday's turmoil.

Image: Onlookers watch from the street as inmates chant and throw things from broken windows at the St. Louis Justice Center on April 4, 2021.
Onlookers watch from the street as inmates chant and throw things from broken windows at the St. Louis City Justice Center on Sunday.Colter Peterson / St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

"There is an immediate need for change in our city's justice system. Uprisings at our jails should not become the norm, and this is unacceptable," Tishaura O. Jones, a mayoral candidate, wrote Monday on Twitter. "We need a clear chain of command — and the buck must stop at the Mayor's desk. We need to get serious about moving pre-trial detainees out of our jails, vaccinating our inmates, and creating a new culture of justice in Saint Louis."

Aldridge also said the mayor's office was responsible for reforms.

"Here we are, less than a month since the last uprising, and there have been no changes to right these significant wrongs. I look forward to working with the next administration to address the concerns of the detainees and to make the facility safe for all who are in it," Aldridge said. "Treating people as if they don't have inherent worth is how we end up here. Continuing to ignore the cries for help will only ensure that more riots happen."

CORRECTION (April 5, 2021, 7:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the location of the disturbance. It was at the St. Louis City Justice Center, not the St. Louis County Justice Center.