Riots, Rulings Punctuate a Checkered 80-Year History

By Thom Gross Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 28, 1994 | Go to article overview

Riots, Rulings Punctuate a Checkered 80-Year History


Thom Gross Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


St. Louis built the City Jail in 1914 and has been singing the Jail House Blues ever since.

Within two decades, grand juries started deploring conditions there.

Jail inspections are part of the routine mandate of grand juries, and harsh criticism has been a regular feature of jurors' reports for more than 60 years.

But at least once in its history, the jail was called divine.

In 1932, a turnkey discovered a mysterious drawing of Christ crucified on a steel plate in cell No. 16. Inmates shed no light on its origin, and the medium was unknown. The cell later was dubbed "the holy cell."

Hangings were a regular occurrence at the jail until 1937, when the governor of Missouri banned them in favor of the electric chair. To this day, two trap doors remain on the sixth floor, and right above them, the ceiling brackets that held the nooses.

In 1953, overcrowding became chronic and critical. Today's court-imposed limit is 228 prisoners, but then, the population often hit 600.

In 1954, inmates staged a hunger strike protesting conditions. Overcrowding again caused headlines in 1966 and 1967, when inmates repeatedly demonstrated. A committee recommended a new jail. Instead, the city replaced the facility's antiquated plumbing.

Inmates rioted the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. In 1969, inmates rioted twice within two weeks. More disturbances and studies followed.

In 1972, then-Circuit Judge Theodore McMillan ordered an inquiry on jail conditions. …

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