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Not enough room or staff at St. Louis County jail for St. Louis inmates, advisory board warns

Not enough room or staff at St. Louis County jail for St. Louis inmates, advisory board warns

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St. Louis County Jail

The St. Louis County Jail in Clayton. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Jail doesn’t have enough room or staff to take inmates from the Medium Security Institution, the city jail that Mayor Tishaura Jones has promised to close, a county jail advisory board warns.

At the St. Louis County Justice Services Advisory Board’s monthly meeting Friday, members of the oversight panel said the county jail, which is located in the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, has too many detainees and too few employees to safely take on some of the overflow from the city facility known as the workhouse.

“We need to be clear ... we’re not capable of taking on any additional inmates, because we’re at capacity and I just wanted to put that on the record in this meeting,” said the Rev. Philip Duvall, a longtime activist who was among three board members, including Chairman Jeff Smith and Tim McBride, opposing the idea.

“It’s not like we’re not trying to be helpful,” Duvall said. “It’s just the reality. … The math is what it is.”

The concerns were raised a day after the Post-Dispatch reported that Jones and County Executive Sam Page had discussed using county jail cells to house some city inmates.

Jones has promised to close the facility within her first 100 days in office as part of a wider effort at jail and criminal justice reform, following a long campaign by activists who decried conditions at both the workhouse, which is located on Hall Street, and the City Justice Center, the downtown jail on Tucker Boulevard.

Jones last week instructed city budget officials to cut all money for the workhouse from the city spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The plan, which is pending approval, includes $1.4 million to house some city inmates in rented detention space in other jurisdictions that could handle overflow from the city’s remaining jail.

Spokesmen for both Jones and Page said Tuesday there have been no further talks about housing city inmates in the county.

“We have no formal proposal before us to consider,” Page spokesman Doug Moore said.

Nick Dunne, spokesman for Jones, said the city plans to issue a formal request for proposals to find detention space in other jurisdictions within a 50-mile area of the city to allow inmates to be close to family and community services.

But the city would only seek jail space for workhouse detainees who couldn’t first be released either to their homes or to mental health or rehabilitative facilities, he said.

As of Tuesday, the workhouse held 329 detainees, or about 35% of the facility’s capacity. And the city’s downtown jail held 607 detainees, or about 65% capacity.

The St. Louis County jail houses about 1,000 detainees, according to the most recent data, out of a capacity of about 1,283.

The county jail’s population grew about 40% over the last year, largely driven by spikes in the number of pre-trial detainees whose court hearings were put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, Acting Director Doug Burris said at the advisory board meeting Friday.

Meanwhile, the jail has struggled to recruit qualified applicants to fill about 45 long-vacant positions for correctional officers, forcing employees to work overtime, Burris said.

The jail employed about 200 correctional officers at the start of this year, according to public records.

A recent job fair netted seven new hires, but it remains a challenge to recruit applicants when other jails and private institutions in the region offer higher starting salaries for corrections officers, Burris said.

McBride, an advisory board member and professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, said the jail’s inmate population may appear to leave room for additional detainees, but it doesn’t reflect the strains the increase would put on staff.

“Capacity is number of officers too, and health personnel — and if you have constraints there, you don’t really have capacity,” McBride said.

The six-member advisory board, appointed by Page in mid-2019 to help reform the troubled county jail after a spate of inmate deaths, has praised improvements at the facility under Burris, including jail health care services and the creation of a public data portal on jail demographics. Burris, the fifth official to lead the troubled jail in 18 months, was hired in September to replace Raul Banasco, the former director who resigned in August amid allegations of misconduct.

Under the advisory board’s urging, the county is in the process of hiring an entity to conduct an independent investigation of the jail.

Smith, the board chair, said Tuesday that taking on inmates from the city could work against gains the board and jail administrators have made in reforms.

“We’ve come a long way in the last six months in making the facility safer and more humane for everyone inside,” Smith said. “We want to stay focused on that goal.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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