COLUMN: “This is Genocide.” Inmates at St. Louis jail revolt over barbaric conditions and inhumane treatment

Our society is committing crimes against humanity on incarcerated individuals. We need abolition.

Noah Wright is a sophomore constitutional democracy major at MU. They are an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

On Feb. 6,117 inmates at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis revolted, escaping from their cells to occupy a section of the jail. The inmates broke windows and started small fires within the facility, garnering national attention and condemnation from some. This is the third uprising in the facility since the beginning of December.

Some 65 of the inmates who participated in the protest were removed and taken to the Medium Security Institution, infamously known as the Workhouse. This facility has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and protests over its lack of air conditioning, inhumane conditions and use as a facility for pretrial detainees unable to pay bail. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in July to close the Workhouse after years of pressure from community activists. Dec. 31 was the deadline for its closure, and now more than a month after this deadline it is being used to house even more detainees.

As of Feb. 13, there are 888 people currently detained at both the City Justice Center and The Workhouse. These facilities house pretrial arrestees, meaning that many of these inmates have not yet received their constitutionally protected right to a speedy and fair trial. Instead, they are being subjugated to gulag-like conditions due to their inability to pay cash bail. According to inmates, one individual at the CJC has been awaiting trial for more than five years.

Conspicuously absent from mainstream media coverage is the statement issued by the incarcerated individuals, which details the horrific conditions these individuals were revolting against. This statement can be found online and deserves to be read in its entirety. It also details how previous attempts to voice concerns through established channels have been ignored, and earlier peaceful protests unreported.

The statement details how inmates have been systematically denied access to nutritious food, warm clothing and protective gear to combat COVID-19. Additionally, inmates struggle to receive COVID-19 tests and lack the space to quarantine away from individuals who are displaying symptoms.

They are also subject to psychological distress from being unable to engage in recreation and prevented from communicating with their families due to new COVID-19 related policies. It details many more instances of barbarity and horror within the CJC, and is surmised by the following paragraph that closes out the statement:

“We feel like POWs in a foreign land in hostile territory. Because of our blackness/ancestral ties to Africa or Latin America, we are being treated less than human. We are dying at CJC in unheard of numbers and being intentionally infected at alarming rates. In my homeland that is the civilized country of America…THIS IS GENOCIDE!”

As a result of the protest and pressure from community activists, the St. Louis circuit attorney has launched an investigation into the conditions of the CJC. Additionally, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced the creation of a task force to examine the causes of the uprising. These investigations will confirm what we already know about the conditions of the jail, but it is unclear if they will result in any substantive change or decarceration.

COVID-19 has spread among incarcerated people at rates higher than almost any other population in the U.S., and this number is undoubtedly higher due to systemic under testing. In Missouri, one in five prisoners has tested positive for the virus, a rate 2.8 times higher than the general population. The death rate is 1.4 times higher.

These numbers are reflected across every state and are no surprise considering the U.S. has both the highest incarceration rate in the world and the most COVID-19 cases. We receive an endless barrage of grim statistics every day, yet we can not forget about the human cost behind every number.

The need for abolition has never been clearer. Our prison system is failing to bring about justice and is used to address issues that stem from socioeconomic inequality and the mental health problems they create. It is not a “broken” system. The system is functioning as it was created to do so: to inflict the most harm possible on people of color and their communities. Cruelty is the point.

Even those who shy away from outright abolition must realize that the U.S. is committing crimes against humanity in our jails. We are allowing COVID-19 to spread unchecked among inmates and depriving them of their most basic needs. Many of these victims are guilty of no crime other than being unable to pay bail.

The only viable solution is emergency decarceration. It is extremely important to get inmates the protective gear they need to curb the spread of COVID-19, but there is only so much that can be done to prevent a highly contagious disease from spreading in an overcrowded prison. Missouri must release its prisoners being held pretrial, followed by a thorough re-examination of all criminal cases to evaluate whether or not they pose a threat to society. Closing the Workhouse and abolishing cash bail is only the floor.

Abolition is foremost a process of building alternatives to carceral solutions. Instead of fighting violence with state violence, we must ensure that everyone has access to food, housing and healthcare. This will never be done by politicians in Washington, but it can be accomplished through community solidarity and mutual aid. Consider joining a group I’m a part of, Abolitionists @ Mizzou, who are currently reading Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” as part of our monthly book club.

Additionally, we can display solidarity with incarcerated people by sharing their stories and amplifying their voices. Our system seeks to dehumanize and we must counter the narrative that incarcerated people are irredeemable criminals. It is dehumanization and ignorance that has allowed these genocidal actions to occur.

As part of our commitment to social justice initiatives, we at The Maneater encourage you to consider making a donation to ArchCity Defenders, an organization committed to addressing St. Louis’ prison crisis and assisting incarcerated individuals. The link to donate is https://www.archcitydefenders.org/get-involved/donate/

Edited by Sofi Zeman | szeman@themaneater.com

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