St. Louis residents protest conditions at St. Louis Justice Center

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The “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY” demonstration, which took place on April 19, drew nearly 50 protesters. The attendees chanted for better prison conditions and court dates.

Following a slew of uprisings by inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center, activists and protesters from St. Louis and neighboring communities took to the streets to have their voices heard.

Nearly 50 protesters gathered on April 19 at 11:30 a.m. for a demonstration titled “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY.” The protest was coordinated by the Facebook group Operation ANY MEANS necessary and by St. Louis community activist Sarah Avery. The protest, which was peaceful, lasted nearly two hours outside the front doors of the City Justice Center.

Protesters chanted for better prison conditions, court dates and spoke about the historic injustices of the U.S. criminal justice system toward Black communities. Protesters held up signs with the total U.S. prison population for every five years, showing the increasing population.

“They are capitalizing off us,” Avery said to the protesters.

Avery told The Journal this event was a response to recent uprisings by inmates. Since December, there have been four uprisings at the City Justice Center.

Inmates hang out of the windows of the St. Louis Justice Center on Sunday, April 4, 2021. The inmates’ protests are the reason nearly 50 protestors gathered outside the Justice Center on April 19. Photo by Jennifer Sarti.

An uprising on Feb. 6 involved over 100 inmates, according to USA Today. The uprising was in response to conditions within the jail and inmate concerns about COVID-19. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, concessions given to inmates in March included expanded recreational times for inmates and restarted in-person visits.

During the most recent uprising, inmates broke windows of the jail and began yelling demands for court dates and stressing issues related to unsafe COVID-19 conditions.

Avery and another protester, Avital Reznikov, alledged that the issues within the City Justice Center “go beyond COVID-19.” They cited personal and family experiences within the facility that included lack of healthcare and access to sanitary products and personal protective equipment.

“We want people to understand what they are going through,” Avery said.

The City of St. Louis Mayor’s Office’s public information officer, Nick Dunne, replied to an email from The Journal. He said Mayor Tishaura Jones, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and Congresswoman Cori Bush visited the City Justice Center. They also went to the St. Louis Medium Security Institution – known as The Workhouse.

Dunne said Jones, along with Gardner and Bush, listened to detainees during the visits. He said the detainees’ complaints said COVID-19 “protocols were neglectful at best.”

“This includes testing negative, and then being placed into cells with detainees who tested positive,” Dunne wrote in an email to The Journal. “While I cannot speak for certain whether this was done out of neglect or retaliation, but Mayor Jones is committed to addressing and resolving these horrendous accusations as swiftly as possible.”

The protesters reiterated the calls of the inmates from just a few weeks earlier by calling for court dates. A task force was created under Mayor Lyda Krewson to address the complaints related to the City Justice Center. Avery feels the task force had not produced any significant results.

The protest attracted activists from outside St. Louis, including Jeremiah Choka from Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Choka, a former Perry County law enforcement official, felt he has a personal attachment to the fight against injustice due to his personal experiences witnessing it.

“I’m not proud of my time working with police,” he said, “but my experience in that and with jails around Missouri has shown me how terrible the conditions are in most, if not all, of our jails.”

For Avery, this is just the first step toward achieving justice. She pointed out the importance of a social media presence but insisted action had to follow.

“To put it simply, activism has to happen,” Choka stated. “If people don’t fight the corruption, it’ll never end.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version to include a statement from the public information officer of the City of St. Louis Mayor’s Office. 

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Caleb Sprous
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