In rush to close jail, a rash of problems linger for St. Louis leaders

The mayor has argued that closing the facility will result in better conditions for inmates; COs, advocates aren't so sure


By Rachel Rice
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
        
ST. LOUIS — Tishaura O. Jones wasted little time after her inauguration as mayor last month in promising to follow through on a campaign pledge to close the St. Louis Medium Security Institution within 100 days.

She has argued that closing the larger of the city's two jails will result in better conditions for detainees, who criminal justice advocates say have been subjected to inhumane conditions. Those activists for years have condemned the Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the workhouse, as a filthy place plagued by mold, sweltering temperatures and other problems.

Some public officials and others note, however, that while the workhouse was rightly criticized for past conditions, improvements have occurred over the years. The sentiment calls into question the speed at which Jones wants to close the jail.

St. Louis Medium Security Institution, seen from the North Riverfront Trail, has been criticized over the years for subjecting inmates to inhumane conditions, but improvements have also occurred.
St. Louis Medium Security Institution, seen from the North Riverfront Trail, has been criticized over the years for subjecting inmates to inhumane conditions, but improvements have also occurred. (LittleT889 via Wikimedia Commons)

Moving forward on a tight timetable to shutter the workhouse by the end of July raises a raft of potential problems for city officials who have provided few specifics on what happens after it closes. Meanwhile the city is working against the clock to upgrade security at the City Justice Center downtown, which has been the site of several uprisings in recent months and which soon will be the only city jail. Malfunctioning cell doors there have allowed inmates to leave their cells, damage property and injure corrections officers.

City officials have not determined where inmates will go if the CJC becomes full, or what will happen to the workhouse building, which opened on Hall Street in the far north of the city in 1966 to house more than 1,000 detainees.

"No, they shouldn't shut it down," former corrections officer Angelica Woods said, recalling when the CJC became so crowded in past years that authorities had to double up one-man cells by dragging in cots.

"Closing the workhouse is not the smartest decision right now. It's an old building, I understand, but sending inmates to other municipalities is going to be a major issue."

Jones toured both the workhouse and the CJC in April, along with Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush. Afterward Jones told reporters that she was "very disappointed, shocked and frustrated" by the conditions at the workhouse.

A different view

A former corrections officer who worked for a decade at the workhouse said it has been remodeled and is "state of the art." Recent leadership at the jail has allowed inmates more privileges than in the past, said the former officer, who requested anonymity so as not to harm job prospects should she apply for another city position.

"It wasn't the best but it wasn't so inhumane as everyone claims it is," the former officer said.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro said he's gone to the workhouse looking for deplorable conditions and found little evidence.

"I didn't see mold, I didn't see roaches running everywhere — I didn't see one," Vaccaro said. "The only thing I'm aware of is they haven't fixed the roof leak properly. ... There's a big gym there and they don't have that at the CJC, and the prisoners can go outside at the workhouse and they can't do that at the CJC. I don't know who they talked to, but when I was in there (detainees) didn't want to be transferred back."

St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts also toured the workhouse last month and said it "wasn't as bad as portrayed."

Woods acknowledged bugs were a problem at the workhouse, with pests sometimes getting in inmates' food, but said an infestation at the CJC was just as bad. The food served to detainees at both places is of poor quality, she said, and the workhouse does have mold in some areas.

The city sees three options for the inmates housed at the workhouse: move them to the CJC, contract with jails in Missouri and Illinois to house them elsewhere, or release some detainees while they await trial, depending on the severity of the charges against them. The vast majority of those held in the CJC and workhouse have not been found guilty of a crime and are being held while they wait for their cases to slowly move through the courts.

At the end of last year, felony cases on the St. Louis Circuit Court docket took on average a little more than 11 months to reach trial or be resolved through pleas or dismissals, according to the latest statistics from the circuit court.

The average life of a felony case in St. Louis peaked in February at about 19 months because of coronavirus-related restrictions on court access, according to the latest data available. That was the longest average amount of time for cases to be disposed since 2008.

As of mid-April, the average had dropped back to about 13 months, the data shows.

Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer, presiding judge for the 22nd Circuit, pushed back on claims that defendants can't get court dates and said they all can get bench trials or plea hearings if they request them. Jury trials, however, have remained severely limited until recently.

"I can't bring a thousand jurors into this building on a Monday morning," Stelzer said.

One fix at a time

The mayor's policy director, Nahuel Fefer, said the administration wants to work with Circuit Attorney Gardner and U.S. Attorney Sayler Fleming to identify cases where people have been incarcerated "for very minor offenses for a long time."

"I was just looking at the jail roster and there's a detainee who has been held for over 1,000 days on a very minor charge," Fefer said. "There are many cases like this."

About 695 inmates are spread between the two jails. Fefer said the 800-bed CJC will have plenty of space for all of them, though currently inmates at the CJC are being shifted from unit to unit while cell locks are repaired. Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass said in a 2020 report that the CJC's recommended operating capacity is 665, with a maximum capacity of 782.

"We're working to try to complete the third floor and move to the fourth and fifth after that," Public Safety Director Dan Isom said of the lock repairs at the CJC. "While we're moving quickly to fix all of the locks and do upgrades, we've instituted changes that we believe will have a high probability of mitigating the same problems that previously (led to disturbances)."

More corrections officers are patrolling each unit and are checking locking mechanisms more frequently, Isom said, and the city is re-routing controls that open all of the cell doors within a unit to a location where detainees can't reach them. A gate near the exterior windows of the CJC has been welded shut, so detainees can't break the windows as they have done twice in the past few months.

The CJC has faced scrutiny following four disturbances that inmate advocates say were spurred by detainees who wanted family visitations to resume, speedier court hearings and better protection against the spread of the coronavirus.

Woods, who worked in city corrections for over 20 years before leaving in December 2019, said that during her time at the CJC, the 20-year-old building was "just as dirty" as the decades older workhouse, and that staff often spent their own money to bring in cleaning supplies. Fefer said the city was "committed to transforming" operations at the CJC.

The lock fixes are well overdue, Woods said. She was injured while working at the CJC in 2015 when an inmate tampered with a lock and attacked a corrections officer and Woods intervened.

"I tore my rotator cuff in three places, and I had two surgeries," she said. "The locks have been bad for 10 years."

'A large backlash'

It isn't clear how many inmates will be sent to jails outside the city, although Jones' administration has said it will not contract with any place farther than 50 miles from St. Louis. Last month the city had about 200 federally charged inmates in its care, and were in the process of moving dozens to other jails, though officials didn't disclose exactly where.

Commissioner Glass reported last year that the nearest jails that could take St. Louis inmates were in Miller County, Missouri, a more than two-hour drive, and St. Francois County, over an hour away.

Even 50 miles out could make it difficult for families of detainees to visit, said Vaccaro, head of the aldermen's public safety committee.

"Defunding (the workhouse) doesn't mean everybody gets to go home," Vaccaro said. "What we have to do is overcrowd the City Justice Center, and whoever we can't fit we just send wherever ... there is going to be a large backlash against it because of the hardship to the families."

U.S. Marshal John D. Jordan said he was not allowed to provide specifics about the movement or location of federal detainees, but said there were more than 1,000 scattered in local jails in eastern Missouri and in neighboring states.

Jails have contracts, potentially lucrative ones, with the U.S. marshals to house detainees who are facing charges in federal court.

In an email about the movement of federal detainees, mayoral spokesman Nick Dunne said, "It's not clear how this shift will affect our budget, but right now our priority is to do the right thing and treat those detainees in our care with humanity."

Jordan said city leaders provided notice to the U.S. marshals that they would need to move detainees, and "ample time" to do so. The marshals service is gradually moving the men and women, and trying to keep them as close to St. Louis as possible.

Asked about the departure of the federal detainees, Federal Public Defender Lee T. Lawless said, "I don't know where they're going to go, and it's going to be a huge problem."

Lawless said trying to visit clients in far-flung jails would cause a "substantial" increase in the amount of time his lawyers spend driving. That's time lawyers could be spending working on cases. For private attorneys it will mean more expense for clients. It also means families will have to travel long distances for visits.

Although the coronavirus pandemic inspired jails and the court system to use videoconferencing to facilitate visits, and that can help, lawyers and clients still need to meet face-to-face to build a relationship, he said.

'An appalling facility'

Fefer was unable to say how many of the city's 695 detainees may be eligible for pre-trial release, but said that of the 337 inmates being held at the workhouse as of last week, 130 of them, or about 39%, have been charged with a violent crime such as homicide, rape, aggravated assault or robbery. Ultimately, it will be up to judges to determine which detainees are released.

"The previous administration's line on city jails was 'the situation is out of our control,' and our position is we will assert city authority over jails, and we can choose to close a jail, and then the judges and prosecutors will be operating downstream from the decision we've made," Fefer said. "They can choose how to react to more limited availability of spots. They can continue to incarcerate people at these rates, and we will find alternative housing for them ... but arresting and incarcerating has not worked. It has not reduced violent crime, it has not served our communities, and from our perspective it magnifies and compounds trauma and drives the cycle of violence in our city."

Matthew Mahaffey, the top public defender in St. Louis, said he believes that every detainee who the courts can't prove is a flight risk or a danger to others should be released.

The workhouse, he said, "is an appalling facility — I've spent a lot of time there over the years." Closing the facility, he predicted, will "improve things in the sense that we will continue to realize that incarcerating people for a ridiculous length of time pre-trial has not created improved criminal legal outcomes or safety."

Dunne, the mayor's spokesman, said closing the workhouse will save the city $7.8 million. Much of that is in personnel costs, though Dunne said all corrections officers working at the workhouse will be able to transfer to the CJC if they choose. The city has budgeted $1.4 million to contract with an outside jail or two, $300,000 will go toward a civilian oversight board that can investigate detainee grievances, $150,000 for "community visioning planning" for improvements to the workhouse building as well as police headquarters and the courts, and $1.3 million has been budgeted for a re-entry program that will include social workers, mental health services and child care for those coming out of the criminal justice system.

"If we close (the workhouse) and that is deemed as the major fix to the problem, we are fooling ourselves," said Mahaffey, the public defender. "My hope is that it doesn't just close and we say, 'Oh good we did the right thing, now back to business as usual.' That would be a travesty, and that's what led us to the existence of the workhouse the way it is right now — viewing people in the criminal legal system as already guilty, and that's exactly how we treat them."

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