'People get creative': St. Louis jail officials address deaths, overdoses and more

Officials' solution to the spread of drugs and ODs within the jail is to seek funding for a new body scanner to monitor both detainees and staff

By Taylor Tiamoyo Harris
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Public safety officials confirmed on Wednesday that two of the six people who died while being incarcerated this year died from drug overdoses.

Public Safety Director Dan Isom said during the Board of Aldermen's public safety committee meeting that three others died from preexisting medical conditions and one person died by suicide.

Isom and the jail's corrections commissioner also answered questions from aldermen about overcrowding, overdoses, officer retention and inmate deaths.

"Certainly we are upset and concerned about the number of deaths that have happened in the jail," said Isom, who noted the absence of an independent analysis after a judge's injunction idled the civilian jail oversight board last month.

When asked how drugs are getting into the jail, corrections commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah said the jail has been working to stop drugs from coming in by using drug-sniffing dogs and having staff conduct periodic checks.

But even one of its own staff members has been a culprit; Clemons-Abdullah noted that a corrections officer was charged in May with bringing in 30 fentanyl pills.

Officials' latest solution to the spread of drugs and overdoses within the jail is to seek funding for a new body scanner to monitor both detainees and staff.

"People get creative," said Clemons-Abdullah. "But with due diligence we can curtail that."

Public safety officials did not specifically address inmates' preexisting medical conditions, but detailed the intake process in which inmates' needs are assessed.

A person's first stop is an initial medical exam within 24 hours where the person is supposed to let staff know about any medications and medical needs. A more extensive exam should happen within two weeks.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro questioned the timing.

"For me, one day would be too long," without his medications, he said.

Clemons-Abdullah defended the intake process in light of the deaths. "It was something that even if they were at home it wouldn't have been detected," she said.

"I understand the public's wanting to know, but only a person coming in can tell me what's wrong with their body."

While mental health needs are also assessed during intake, sometimes staff miss warning signs that a person is at risk of suicide.

"You can do it in a short amount of time," said Clemons-Abdullah. "So I can't really account for somebody that wants to do self-harm, but what we do is we make every effort to be able to detect that."

Addressing the needs of more than 500 people at the jail while being "short-staffed" with fewer than 100 stressed staff, now working 16-hour shifts, is difficult, the jail's commissioner said.

However, she said overcrowding is not an issue, refuting several aldermen who said they'd heard from constituents that it was a problem. A decision last month to move some inmates to another detention facility was an attempt to break up a disturbance, Isom said. The capacity of the City Justice Center is now at about 650 people and no one, as of Wednesday, is housed at the Medium Security Institution or "Workhouse."

Clemons-Abdullah lobbied throughout the meeting to increase officer pay, which she said she thinks would increase staff morale. She also suggested superlatives for the officers with financial incentives, such as $1,000 for "Officer of the Year."

Clemons-Abdullah said it would help officers "strive to do better."

The next court date for the officer charged with bringing in drugs to the jail is Nov. 14.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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