Inmate had COVID for weeks, St Louis jail didn’t know: Documents

Tests obtained by Al Jazeera show 14 days passed before jail criticised for its COVID safety protocols was informed.

People stare out of windows broken by detainees at the City Justice Center in St Louis, Missouri, in February 2021 [Courtesy of ArchCity Defenders]

The City Justice Center (CJC), a jail in St Louis, Missouri, that saw three revolts in two months over allegedly brutal conditions and unsafe COVID-19 protocols, housed a COVID-positive detainee for two weeks before the jail was informed, documents obtained by Al Jazeera show, raising questions about COVID-19 safety protocols inside the jail, and the city’s testing procedures.

Litel Gilmore, a pretrial detainee at CJC, tested positive for COVID-19 on December 15, according to confidential medical records obtained by Al Jazeera, which Gilmore agreed to share.

The “notification date” for the test is December 29, records show. Another positive test was performed on December 30, the day Gilmore was placed under full quarantine. The notification date for that test is January 5.

Matthew Mahaffey, the lead supervising lawyer in the St Louis City trial office of the Missouri State Public Defender system, told Al Jazeera that Gilmore “self reported” he was not quarantined for the entirety of the 14 days, though he is not sure for how long.

“We haven’t received documentation from the jail about quarantine status,” Mahaffey said, claiming that city authorities that administer the jail have been opaque with information regarding COVID-19 protocols.

Continued concerns

CJC inmates have long said they suspect jailed people suspected of having COVID-19 mix with the general population and decried a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), according to ArchCity Defenders (ACD), a St Louis legal advocacy organisation that works with detainees at CJC and another jail called the Minimum Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse.

The six-storey jail, established in 2002, saw two protests where inmates left their cells in protests over conditions and lax COVID-19 prevention protocols in late December and early January, and another in early February.

The February protest, classified as a riot by authorities, saw inmates leave their cells – held shut by easily-opened locks –  to bust windows and allegedly attack guards.

City officials have denied these claims, but the jail has long faced criticism over myriad issues.

A December investigation by local television station KTVI showed drugs were entering into the jail, causing at least one death attributed to overdose, even as visits were ended due to the pandemic.

The city has faced lawsuits over the jail’s administration, most recently a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday that alleges Anthony Tillman, a 39-year-old man with paraplegia detained at CJC, has been unable to shower for more than 155 days because the jail does not have a wheelchair-accessible shower.

Instead, CJC provided him with a washbasin and rag to bathe, according to ACD, one of several organisations that filed the lawsuit (PDF) on Tillman’s behalf.

ACD has established a hotline for inmates to air their concerns over COVID-19 protocols, recordings of which are made publicly available.

ADC Executive Director Blake Strode told Al Jazeera the group hears “very consistently … that people inside of the jail are not actually being treated with the same degree of care and caution to protect them against COVID” that “is recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]”.

The CDC recommends social distancing, mask usage and regular hygiene such as handwashing to help prevent the virus’s spread.

Speaking about the COVID-19 test results obtained by Al Jazeera, Strode said, “The jail and city officials city administrators have completely failed in their duty to protect people’s health, and keep them safe.”

Safe transfer?

During the period of protests in late December and early January, roughly 100 inmates involved in the revolts were transferred from CJC to the Workhouse, according to local media.

On December 29, the day Gilmore’s positive test was reported, there were 750 inmates at CJC, and 93 at the Workhouse.

By January 3, the Workhouse had 144 inmates, while CJC had 722, according to St Louis city data. City data does not make clear how many detainees in the Workhouse were transferred.

Gilmore says he was transferred in early January, according to Mahaffey, who also said the city did not provide a list of transferred inmates after the tumult.

Neither Mahaffey nor Strode knew if inmates were tested before they were transferred. They were also unaware of how the inmates, including Gilmore, were transported between the two jails.

Jacob Long, director of communications for the office of Mayor Lyda Krewson, told Al Jazeera: “Since COVID-19 arrived in the St Louis area one year ago, we’ve only had 106 detainees test positive.”

Long said the people transferred from CJC “were not tested prior” due to “emergency circumstances. All transfers were provided with PPE and remained within their unit groups. Those who were housed together at CJC remained together at MSI.”

Long told Al Jazeera a “review of our records did not find anything that matches” the scenario surrounding Gilmore’s test results.

Regarding isolation protocols while awaiting test results, Long said those that “report or display symptoms are isolated until such time their test results are received. Detainees that are tested at will with no report or display of symptoms are not isolated.”

Further, while test results can sometimes be delayed, 14 days “is not a common turnaround time for tests that have been administered”.

The uprisings at CJC came as the US was approaching a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisons and jails, where detainees have little space for social distancing and often have little access to quality healthcare, became a cause for concern as the virus spread.

A December report by the Marshall Project said one in five federal and state prisoners in the US had contracted COVID.

California’s San Quentin saw a massive virus outbreak after inmates were transferred to the prison from another facility without being tested.

People hold up a banner while listening to a news conference outside San Quentin State Prison in California in July 2020 to discuss a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility that sickened more than 1,400 inmates and caused six deaths [File: Eric Risberg/AP Photo]

Some detention centres decreased detainee populations to create distance, while others adopted strict testing regimens, which advocates say are lacking at CJC.

The city released data in a February 8 letter (PDF) that said: “From March 2020 to [February 8] we have tested 752 detainees.”

On that day, there were 900 inmates in the two jails, according to city records, meaning not every detainee had been tested.

No COVID-related deaths have been reported at either jail, and the city said in the February 8 letter there were only three known positive cases among detainees, according to the letter.

St Louis has organised a task force to investigate claims made about CJC, which released a report Friday that said the low number of inmates – 100 – who tested positive was “quite remarkable given the confined spaces, close contacts and constant influx from the community”.

Reflecting on a year of COVID-19 inside jails and detainee’s voiced concerns, Mahaffey said when “the pandemic was first a reality for us all, I think there was optimism still, not just with our clients but our staff, the courts and society at general, that this could possibly get to a point where this would be manageable”.

Unfortunately, in his view, that never happened.

“As that glimmer of hope has dimmed or completely gone away … frustrations rightly boil over,” Mahaffey concluded, referring to protests at CJC.

Source: Al Jazeera