St. Louis County Jail working to prevent people from coming back
As part of the jail’s focus on preventing recidivism, researchers are examining racial inequities in jail policies, practices and culture
By Taylor Tiamoyo Harris
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
CLAYTON, Mo. — The St. Louis County jail, led by its sixth director in three years, has launched reforms officials hope will improve the long-troubled facility and help keep people from reoffending once released.
The changes come years after the Buzz Westfall Justice Center dominated headlines and prompted protests inside and outside its walls over claims of staff misconduct, use-of-force practices and inmates dying in custody. Over the past two years, employees have described bullying under previous directors, and dozens have said they’re on the verge of quitting.
Millions have been invested to reform the jail, including nearly $6 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Since 2015, the nonprofit has funded a pretrial release program, provided qualified inmates with housing and employment assistance, help for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
“If we can all be treated with dignity, I think we can help people be successful — and keep the public safer,” said jail Director Scott Anders. In his office hangs a poster with an image of the late Congressman John Lewis and his renowned principle of “Good Trouble.”
As part of the jail’s focus on preventing recidivism, researchers are examining racial inequities in jail policies, practices and culture. For example, they’ll be looking at whether people of color are more likely to be put in restraints by corrections staff or assigned to specific housing units.
“How you’re treated in jail affects how you then reacclimate to the community,” said Huebner. “You want to make sure that people who are released from jail are ready to go back to work, go back with their families.”
Looking for answers
The jail has been a research target as officials sought reasons and solutions to its perennial problems and flashpoints. The upcoming study will be the first to examine the culture and specifically look for racial inequities in a jail setting rather than in a prison; and it will look at staff and inmates.
“If staff are unhappy due to racial biases in the jail, then staff are less likely to take care of people in the jail,” said Huebner.
Protests erupted in 2019 after five people died in jail custody. Inmates and their families reported staff misconduct and misuse of force, prompting an examination by police and the County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. The county reactivated its Justice Services Advisory Board in response.
Among other damning findings, investigators highlighted the availability of illicit drugs in the jail and identified instances where nurses failed to perform basic medical functions and barely knew jail procedures.
A 2021 study by University of Missouri-St. Louis researchers found the jail population declined by 40% over a 10-year period but that the length of stay increased.
Black people make up the overall population of the jail and have longer stays than their white counterparts.
Detainees stay an average of three months, according to the county jail’s August data, the most recent available.
Last November, St. Louis County approved a $121,505 contract with Florida-based consulting group CGL to conduct a six-month review of the jail, in response to complaints of a toxic work environment.
Results were made public in July.
The audit, which the county touted as creating a roadmap for future reforms, contradicted the “toxic work environment” staff reported in 2020.
CGL found that the jail is “top heavy” with too many supervisors and, at the time, was understaffed with 45 vacancies. Anders said there were 30 open positions as of September.
The jail’s staff shortages lead to inmates being placed on lockdown when there aren’t enough employees on duty, resulting in less out-of-cell time, recreation and program services, the report stated.
Anders said those lockdowns were also due to the pandemic, and said in September that detainees are out of their cells at least eight hours a day.
Some jail medical staff, who are contracted by the Department of Health, accused inmates of faking illness, according to the audit.
A health care manager said in an interview for the study medical staff would not take referrals from security officers.
“This is contrary to standard practice in most jails, as security personnel often have the most interaction with inmates and are likely the best source of information related to their condition,” the study states.
Today, each housing floor has an infirmary instead of funneling everyone to a main infirmary.
The CGL report was criticized by some advisory board members for not detailing the causes and circumstances of the five 2019 deaths.
In May, board member the Rev. Phillip Duval said he doubted if staff interviewed for the audit felt they could speak freely.
Duval resigned from the advisory board, citing, in part, limitations of the audit. He became the third person to resign from the jail board in the past year and a half.
Ultimately, the consulting firm, which did not have full access to complete medical records, didn’t find any wrongdoing leading to the five in-custody deaths in 2019.
Concerns remain about how forthright the county administration is when deaths occur. Councilman Mark Harder criticized Page in a County Council meeting this summer after finding out about the deaths from Post-Dispatch coverage.
“Is there something going on over there we need to know about?” Harder said.
Three people have died at the county jail since January.
“Those types of things will happen, but it’s important that we’re making sure there’s nothing that we’re doing that contributes to that,” said Anders, in an interview.
Questions remain about the inmate who died last month after being found unresponsive in his cell.
Looking to the future
While Anders says he thinks morale is improving at the jail because of better communication, he said the $3-per-hour pay increase for jail staff the County Council approved in November has been a significant boost.
In April, the county executive and jail’s director proposed increasing the amount charged to municipalities for holding their inmates from $30 to $120 per person — the first increase in more than 20 years. Many municipalities objected.
The cost to house each detainee is about $150 a day but dwindles to about $120 a day when applying the jail’s revenue and money from grants.
The council has yet to approve the change.
The Rev. Elijah Hosea Hankerson III, a pastor in national and local leadership with the Church of God in Christ, and Nina Riaz, a law school graduate who has worked with incarcerated people with mental illnesses, were sworn in as new advisory board members in August.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand what can happen to someone when they’re released and they don’t have resources or they’re traumatized by something that happened in the jail,” Riaz told the County Council.
When asked by Councilman Tim Fitch if there are some people who belong in the jail, Riaz responded:
“Do all of them need to be there? No. Do some of them need to be there? Yes, and knowing who needs what and when will be the key to the success of that system.”