CO shortage poses safety risk at St. Louis County jail
Officials want the St. Louis County Council to approve $1.6 million from the general fund to hire an additional 27 correctional officers
By Taylor Tiamoyo Harris
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
CLAYTON, Mo. — Top St. Louis County officials said on Thursday that a failure to hire more corrections officers at the county jail could pose a safety threat to inmates and guards alike.
But some St. Louis County Council members expressed concerns about mismanagement of the budget at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.
Now that the jail has fulfilled its commitment to make more than 50 hires over the past few months, Justice Services Director Scott Anders and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page want the council to approve $1.6 million from the general fund to hire an additional 27 correctional officers.
"We're burning people out, and we need your help," Anders said at the council's Justice, Health and Welfare committee meeting on Thursday. The county's budget director also backs adding jail staff.
But council committee members Lisa Clancy, Mark Harder and Rita Days expressed concerns over jail management's approval of overtime claims. Days cited an example in which a group of employees logged more than 120 hours of overtime — each — within a 80 hour pay period.
"That means they never go home," Councilman Harder said to Anders during Thursday's meeting.
The head of the jail replied: "Right, sounds like an error. I don't see that being possible," and promised to review the group's overtime.
The committee discussed the attack on a corrections officer who was single-handedly supervising more than 60 inmates, against jail policy, last fall. A jail supervisor told the Post-Dispatch it was due to an employee shortage.
The request for new officers comes as Page and council members continue to iron out how to tackle a multimillion-dollar deficit in the county's approved 2023 budget.
"We continue to be in between a rock and a hard place with our budget," said Clancy during the meeting. "Is this a good investment for us? That's the question before us, in my mind."
In December, Anders fought back when the council tried to cut $1.6 million for 16 new jail jobs from the county's proposed budget, at a time when it had more than 50 staff vacancies. The council ultimately decided to keep those positions in the budget.
The $1.6 million discussed at the Thursday meeting is separate from the prior request.
If approved, the new request could lead to over $3 million in additional revenue stemming from a contract the jail could receive for adequately housing federal inmates, Page said.
The jail is operating on a $28 million budget. As of Thursday, about 930 people are in the jail. This time last year, there were about 868 and in December the jail's population fell to 750.
"You are going to spend more (on overtime) if they don't hire," said Chris Howard, the county's budget policy coordinator.
The jail is short on medical staff, too, officials and staff say: A shortage of nurses, which was left unaddressed by council or county officials on Thursday, has resulted in incarcerated people not receiving medication, according to nurses in the jail.
Two people died at the jail in March, about a week after Anders sent a letter requesting approval to hire more staff. The jail's population then, Anders noted in the letter, had risen by 100 in two months.
The jail said both men complained of breathing issues, but the official causes of death have not yet been released.
One jail nurse testified earlier this year that there were only about two dozen nurses at the jail, and only about seven of them were staff jail nurses and not contracted. Another nurse confirmed to the Post-Dispatch that due to shortages in the jail's medical staff over the past few weeks, inmates have not received necessary medication.
"It makes us frustrated. It makes us worried," said David Dooley, a nurse a the jail for about the last 10 years, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch on Thursday. "We're serving a population a lot of people feel is OK to write off."
When more than five people died at the jail in 2019, protests erupted in the area. Government and private funding was allocated to the jail and nonprofits to improve jail conditions and reduce its population. Page ignited a dormant civilian jail advisory board to look into the deaths and other complaints.
Many members have since quit, citing a lack of transparency from the county's administration and jail officials.
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