ST. LOUIS — The Medium Security Institution, which currently houses 76 inmates due to overcrowding at the city’s downtown jail, can’t provide medications or medical care on-site, city officials said this week.
Interim Corrections Commissioner Jeff Carson outlined a series of problems at both jails to the Aldermanic Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. He also introduced the person who will deal with them, newly hired Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah.
Carson said that the jail on Hall Street does not have a license to distribute pharmaceuticals. It’s expected to take at least 90 days for the jail, commonly known as the workhouse, to become relicensed now that inmates are again being held there after a brief shutdown. There are no medical staff at the workhouse, either, though city officials said they are in “ongoing discussions” to get a nurse there.
Mayoral spokesman Nick Desideri said Wednesday that detainees can receive medical treatment off-site, and if they catch COVID-19 they will be taken to the isolation ward at the downtown jail. The city is in compliance with local and federal regulations, he said, in that inmates can access medical care “within the present system.”
A frustrated Joe Vaccaro, who chairs the public safety committee, on Tuesday said, “There were dentists there, there were doctors there ... but they completely defunded that.”
He continued, “And now I guess we’ve got to find where the money’s going to come from to put all that back.”
Clemons-Abdullah takes over as commissioner after a tumultuous year marked by multiple inmate uprisings at the downtown jail and the emptying of the workhouse in June — one of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones’ campaign promises. About a month after the workhouse was cleared, inmates were moved back because of disturbances at the downtown jail, due in part to faulty cell door locks.
The city is in the process of repairing the locks as well as upgrading the control panels used to operate the doors, but the work isn’t expected to be completed until the last quarter of 2022, officials said Tuesday.
Officials don’t move inmates with urgent medical needs to the workhouse, Carson said. About two dozen were moved there because they started fights or spurred on riots in the City Justice Center downtown. Others volunteered.
Carson also told the committee in the Zoom meeting that the City Justice Center is currently over capacity by 101 inmates. While the downtown jail’s third floor is closed for security upgrades, the jail has capacity for 389 detainees but currently houses 466 men and 24 women.
At the same time, the corrections department is 40 corrections officers short, Carson said, calling the shortage “severe.” Many officers, including long-tenured employees, he said, have left for better pay in St. Louis and St. Charles counties.
Richard Bradley, president of the St. Louis Board of Public Service, told the commission that the previous administration had allocated $7 million for jail repairs, and the city had already spent $6 million of that. To complete security repairs, Bradley said, the city will need an additional $12.5 million.
“We asked for new locks in 2014 when I got here,” Carson pointed out. He told the aldermen that after the third floor is reopened, “you’ll have a jail that will carry you for the next 20, 30 years, with medium-maximum security locks and the most updated software.”
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd expressed frustration at those who had advocated for the closure of the workhouse and said he was concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19 at the crowded downtown jail.
“Nobody is going to convince me that the people in the justice center who are packed in there like sardines are in a better place than they were at MSI,” Boyd said. “I’m tired of the lies, the misinformation, the political shenanigans with people’s lives.”