It’s past time to abolish prisons: Take a look at the CJC protests

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Inmates are cold and hungry. They need proper care, proper COVID-19 precautions, recreation and visitation rights.

The City Justice Center of St. Louis (CJC) made headlines with a major protest early February. Photos flooded the internet of protestors in front of broken windows waving for help. The images were of the third protest that has happened at the CJC since December. People being held by the CJC were protesting for their rights to adequate living conditions and COVID-19 protections.

This protest caught the city by surprise because the first two protests were suppressed by the media. As a prison abolitionist, my heart breaks hearing the human rights abuses that have been taking place inside the prison and this protest just proves to me further that the
prison system does not work. The protest took place on the weekend of Feb 7. People in the CJC took over the top floor at 3 a.m. and the protest lasted seven hours. One hundred and seventeen people being held inside the CJC took part in this protest.

In the first protest, which was peaceful, they were hosed down and tear-gassed. This followed a removal of personal items because of the tear gas, or so officials say. They had personal documents taken away from them, including birth certificates and documents regarding their cases.

Keep in mind, a majority of the people inside the CJC are awaiting trial. That means a lot of the people inside the CJC have not been proven guilty and taking away those documents makes it more difficult to work on their cases. Some people have been in the CJC for five years while waiting for a trial.

As punishment for the first protest, the people involved were put in “the hole,” otherwise known as solitary confinement, for expressing their right to freedom of speech. On New Year’s Eve, their pod was filled with 51 people and 24 of them were known by staff to have COVID-19.

The fact that the capacity was at 60 before COVID-19 shows these facilities are not adjusting their normal policies to fit virus precautions, thus putting people in a position where they can literally die because of officials’ incompetence.

Well, why hasn’t anything started happening until now? Well, letter-writing campaigns and peaceful protests were ignored largely by state officials. Some state officials don’t even care enough to be aware of what’s happening in St. Louis jails, so to me, it is no surprise that peaceful action was ignored and unheard. This is why we must support people facing incarceration because, with incarceration, your right to freedom of speech is seen as removable.

involved in the CJC protests engaged in peaceful protests twice before they broke windows to gain attention from the outside. Jimmie Edwards, St. Louis Public Safety head, felt the need to call the protest “violent” and  “destructive” in press conferences that weekend, while not taking any ounce of accountability for being in a position where he could have done so much more to prevent this third protest from occurring.

If Edwards focused more on the needs of the people inside the CJC than his personal image, then maybe those incarcerated would not have to take over an entire floor just to be heard. This is just one problem with prisons. They are tied to wealthy people or people in high positions who do not have an ounce of respect for anyone on the inside. This leads to human rights abuses and people making money off the prison industrial complex.

The living conditions and lack of policies to deal with COVID-19 were two of the main reasons why incarcerated people of CJC protested. Since COVID-19 began to spread, people inside the prison were not allowed to see their families and meal nutritional value went down, more so than it already was. They have been denied recreation, as well as adequate medical attention.

The statement released by those involved in the protest alleged that people were forced to mingle with those who visibly had the virus. I say visibly because COVID-19 tests at the CJC had not been occurring until the weekend of the protest. The St. Louis Department of Public Safety said there were not any confirmed cases until that weekend. However, a statement made by the people protesting points out the fallacy in the statement. The key word here is “confirmed.” They say this because they were not adequately testing people up until the protests made headlines.

Arguments made against the protests by city officials included that the CJC is not overcrowded by state guidelines. The argument was made to negate the arguments of overcrowding pits the protesters described in their statement of needs. While the jail itself was 101 below capacity, the facility was still holding 759 people. This number was decided
pre-COVID-19 and there have been no adjustments to the capacity numbers since the virus got to the United States.

According to St. Louis Public Radio, people have used the protest to certify the need for a second facility and better COVID-19 measures, but I think they are missing the point. Yes, COVID-19 protections need to be a thing in the status quo, but the overall need for a prison in the first place needs to be evaluated.

The fact that the first two protests were so easily ignored leads me to wonder how many prison protests are shielded from us by the media. The prison is set up to ignore and forget about anyone held inside. It should not be this hard for incarcerated folks to communicate that their rights are being violated.

The prison is made for profit, allowing money incentives to be the goal rather than rehabilitation. Rights can be violated inside the prison without a blink of an eye. Now, those at the CJC are being transferred to the Workhouse, another facility known for not treating the incarcerated folks inside with human dignity.

People have used this protest as reasoning to advocate to keep the Workhouse, rather than evaluating the way St. Louis handles justice as a whole. The fact that we have two facilities, and both are known for the same problem, leads me to believe that just reforming them will not be enough. We need prison abolition and a focus on rehabilitation.

Inmates are cold and hungry. They need proper care, proper COVID-19 precautions, recreation and visitation rights. Inmates feel as though they are being left to die. Incarceration comes with the assumption that they are mainly BIPOC because mass incarceration targets those communities. Ignoring the needs of inmates can, and has, led to deadly outcomes.

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Kieron Kessler
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