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St. Louis County jail adviser quits, calls for reform panel with subpoena power

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County Council Meeting

Phillip Duvall delivers a statement to the County Council on Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in the County Council chambers in Clayton. The meeting was called to discuss county jail procedures after the deaths of three inmates, however no representatives from the jail attended. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — An outspoken civil rights activist appointed by County Executive Sam Page to a citizen panel advising the county jail quit in frustration Friday, blasting Page’s administration and senior jail staff over a lack of transparency and stalled reforms.

The Rev. Philip Duvall is the third member of the Justice Services Advisory Board, which Page relaunched in mid-2019 after a series of inmate deaths, to resign in protest in the past 14 months.

Duvall on Friday called for the six-member advisory board to be dismantled and replaced by a larger board with subpoena power and wide authority to investigate alleged wrongdoing.

“I am resigning due to multiple unsatisfactory factors which (have) caused me to become increasingly angered in recent months,” wrote Duvall, whose push to investigate a cluster of inmate deaths in early 2019 had helped prompt county officials to reform the long-dormant advisory board.

Duvall on Friday noted some improvements in jail conditions and programs to help inmates reenter society. But he also raised alarms that the jail’s nurses are overworked and underpaid. He also said allegations of sexual discrimination and violations of the jail’s use of force policy aren’t being scrutinized by internal investigators.

And he ripped Page’s administration for failing to explain why it changed the advisory board’s demand for an outside review of the jail to remove language specifically calling for thorough scrutiny of inmate deaths, including six deaths of medical complications in 2019 and 2020.

The county has maintained the inmates’ medical records are confidential and denied auditors’ request for access. But the county has allowed auditors access to other investigative records.

Duvall, in his letter Friday, said the changes to the contract “were a true awakening that some in your administration are not interested in transparency, accountability, or accepting valued information as to how we got in the conditions we were attempting to climb out of.”

Page spokesman Doug Moore said in a written statement that the executive “anticipated” Duvall would not seek reappointment to the board because his term was set to expire next month and he had recently moved “out of state.”

“Rev. Duvall’s term expires in less than 30 days, and we anticipated he would not seek reappointment because he has moved out of state. We thank Rev. Duvall for his service.”

“Dr. Page appointed Rev. Duvall to the advisory board because he had been a fierce critic of jail operations and we wanted him on the board for his honest feedback. … While he listed some frustrations in his resignation letter, he also highlighted improvements to the jail and there have been many over the last few years. With input from other members of the advisory board, we will weigh his criticisms and put them in context.”

The statement did not specifically respond to allegations of misconduct Duvall raised in the letter or to Duvall’s call for a new advisory board.

Duvall, in response, confirmed that he had recently bought a home in Oklahoma but said the decision “had no bearing” on his resignation from the advisory board. He still owns a home in St. Louis County, has family here and travels in between, he said.

Page was at the jail Friday morning to meet with local trade union representatives as part of an effort, Moore said, to ensure “that the detainees have a path to success once they leave the Justice Center. We are always looking at ways to improve the operations of the jail and to better prepare detainees once they leave our custody.”

Before serving on the advisory board, Duvall had been a frequent speaker at County Council meetings, including several appearances in early 2019 to demand accountability for three inmate deaths that occurred within six weeks.

County officials at the time were questioning why the advisory board had appeared to be dormant for more than a decade and why then-County Executive Steve Stenger had never made any appointments to the panel.

Page, who succeeded Stenger in April 2019 after Stenger was indicted and resigned, relaunched the advisory board and named Duvall and five others to the panel. Duvall chaired the panel until September 2020, when he stepped down from chairmanship for health reasons.

He remained an outspoken member, often criticizing Page’s administration for a lack of transparency over the inmate deaths, hiring decisions and internal investigations into other alleged misconduct.

On Friday, he said a group of longtime corrections supervisors had also worked to block efforts at reform by three jail directors hired since 2019, including Raul Banasco, who quit in August 2020 amid allegations of misconduct. An anonymous letter written at the time had alleged Banasco was ousted by a “cabal” whose members were upset with his changes.

“The so-called ‘Culture of Tyranny Letter’ that was widely publicly covered August 2020 has more truth to it,” Duvall said in his letter. “This toxic culture has produced nepotism, favoritism, long histories of sexual misconduct, harassment, abusive amounts of unauthorized overtime and an unfair promotional process that has personnel oversight.”

After Banasco’s resignation, the board demanded an outside investigation of the jail, which Page delayed in order to conduct a survey of employees.

The outside investigation finally kicked off in November after the county hired CGL Companies. But the advisory board questioned the process in March when a Post-Dispatch report revealed the county wouldn’t release medical records on inmate deaths to the auditors and that their demand to review deaths had been removed from the contract language without their knowledge.

Duvall alleged Friday that a monthly advisory board meeting in March was abruptly canceled by county officials to avoid discussion of the issue ahead of a political primary. Page is running for reelection to a second term. Officials said holding the meeting would have violated open records laws because a technical error had taken down public notice of the meeting.

Duvall said he was unable to attend the next monthly meeting, which was the first board meeting he’d missed over his tenure.

“I’m honored to have served with my distinguished colleagues who I have fostered friendships through this experience, and I wish them continued success, I had never missed a meeting until the abrupt cancellation of March 2022 and the surrounding factors about its content,” Duvall said.

“For the first time I was unable to make April’s schedule and did not attempt to try recognizing the political season, appears to take priority to people’s career, safety, security and well-being.”

Duvall said he was proud of improved conditions in the jail, including several new programs designed to help inmates reintegrate into society with work training and education.

And he praised Justice Services Director Scott Anders, who took over the jail in October, for bringing “fresh ideas, solid leadership and stable direction” to the department.

But Duvall alleged Anders wasn’t being given full authority and freedom to make changes from Page’s administration.

“I welcomed the fresh ideas, solid leadership, and stable direction that Director Scott Anders brings to the department, provided he receives the full Authority and support of his position while not being hamstrung and undermined by other departments fearful of lies, inuendos (sic) and threats of lawsuits, while the same group of unprofessional (sic) mis-manages and undermines progress,” Duvall said.

And he called for greater funding for jail medical workers, who he said were “overworked, underpaid” and given “inadequate resources.”

Mary Zabawa Taylor, a former volunteer in the criminal justice ministry at the jail and a former director of patient safety at Washington University School of Medicine, resigned in April 2021. Page appointed UMSL criminology professor Beth Heubner to fill Taylor’s seat.

Another board member, Twyla Lee, resigned in July. Lee’s former seat has remained vacant.

Updated at 3:46 p.m. Friday, May 27, with more details(tncms-asset)c9a8869c-4c8f-11ec-bde6-00163ec2aa77[0](/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)46fa44dc-a55a-11ec-ad6a-00163ec2aa77[1](/tncms-asset)(tncms-asset)5f443cc4-5216-11ec-9b34-00163ec2aa77[2](/tncms-asset)

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Reporter covering St. Louis County politics. 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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