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County jail deaths

Friends and family of John Shy hold a vigil in his memory outside the St. Louis County Justice Center jail in Clayton on March 4. Shy, 29, is one of three men who have died while in custody at the jail in 2019. 

When it comes to figuring out what’s wrong with the St. Louis County Jail, Sam Page starts with a question.

“Why did four people die in six months?” the St. Louis County executive asks.

It’s a good place to start.

Lamar Catchings. Larry “Jay” Reavis. John M. Shy. Daniel Stout.

Each died of some sort of medical complications in the jail, or, in Stout’s case, shortly after having been in the care of the jail.

When Page, an anesthesiologist, took over as county executive and the responsibility for dealing with the jail deaths landed on his lap, he responded like a medical professional. He set out to diagnose the problem.

As reported in painstaking detail by the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler over the past several months, it’s a big problem. Cries for help ignored. Medical needs brushed off. Nurses and corrections officers not communicating. The previous administration slashing jobs, firing whistleblowers and looking to privatize jail operations in an effort to cut costs.

The results are predictable. People died, and nobody had any answers as to why.

The unfortunate reality is, people die in jails in this country every day. All too often, their deaths earn but a sentence or two in a news brief buried inside the local newspaper. But deaths per capita in local jails have been on the rise nationally, according to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics. People are paying attention as they realize that so many of the inmates kept in America’s jails are there because they can’t afford bail, or because of drug abuse issues, or because of the criminalization of poverty in cash-strapped cities and counties in rural and urban areas alike.

Jail deaths are a virus. Or an epidemic. And the problem won’t be fixed without some pain along the way. In his medical profession, that’s what Page is trained to stop: pain.

About a year ago one of Page’s colleagues was my anesthesiologist before a surgery. He explained clearly to me everything he was going to do before and during my surgery. His job was to keep me alive and pain free while the surgeon did his thing.

That’s Page’s job now.

He has a sick patient.

It’s not just the jail. St. Louis County is still reeling from the ongoing investigation into the corruption of Page’s predecessor, Steve Stenger, with several guilty pleas already entered, and more indictments likely to come. The budget is broken. The federal government wants to destroy a public housing project in Wellston and leave poor people on the street.

More than a century of separation of city and county limits the region’s ability to meet its economic potential, but the recent Better Together effort to unify St. Louis suffered from the same old political failures that often keep this region behind its competitors, from racial division to parochialism to corruption.

The region needs leadership.

Along comes the good doctor.

The more Page approaches his new job like a physician, the better the outcome will be.

On the jail, he recognizes that the various systems that are in place aren’t working properly, regardless of the fact that a recent accreditation team found the St. Louis County Jail checked all the proper boxes.

“I’m glad we’re competent,” Page says of the accreditation finding in June, “but people are still dying. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve got to build something that gets us past competency.”

At the moment, Lt. Col. Troy Doyle of the St. Louis County Police Department is tasked with studying jail operations and figuring out how to make them better. But pressure is also coming from families of the victims who have died who will likely file lawsuits to get to the bottom of what happened.

That’s going to cost the county money and more bad publicity. So be it, says Page, as long as the result is a better, safer jail.

“If somebody has been injured because of us they deserve compensation,” Page says. “We don’t have enough nurses. We don’t have enough doctors. We ought to be able to build a better system.”

It’s the sort of answer that likely makes the attorneys and political people who work for Page cringe.

But that’s OK. Page’s job right now isn’t to get re-elected — though the pressure to work on that process will build every day. It’s not to raise money or beat back potential challengers. His job right now is to be a doctor.

It’s triage time in St. Louis County. Heal the patient and the politics will follow.

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