CLAYTON — When a top St. Louis County police commander on April 22 took over management of the county jail where three inmates had died, he said he planned to evaluate the jail and make improvements.
Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, the interim director of justice services, promised to be transparent about what he found. But county officials acknowledged Thursday that nearly three months into his tenure — which included a fourth inmate death — Doyle’s ability to review breakdowns or make changes at the jail has been limited because he does not oversee the nurses and other medical staff.
Only in recent weeks has he gained access to critical meetings where medical issues pertaining to the deaths are discussed.
It has been another barrier to public accounting for the series of deaths that has rocked the county. Under direction from the county’s legal staff, officials have refused to let the public see any records of the death investigations, claiming they are confidential personnel or health records, or that they concern secure systems. The officials have withheld public records from the mother of one of the victims because she might use them in a lawsuit.
Because of the blackout, it remained impossible to know whether the county followed national standards for investigating inmate deaths, or what had resulted from those investigations.
“I want to get this stuff out,” County Executive Sam Page said in an interview last week. “I’ve got two career attorneys telling me — one’s in tears and the other one’s very angry — that you can’t just release all this stuff that will be impossible for us to defend any sort of litigation.”
Page said on Thursday that he would be seeking guidance from newly appointed county counselor, Beth Orwick, “whether we can change the long-held position in county government where any time there is a threat of litigation that all relevant information is withheld from sunshine requests.”
Doyle’s experience shows how difficult information is to come by even on the inside.
That is beginning to change, according to Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page. Two county departments — justice services and public health — have for several years operated independently within the jail, without common oversight. Justice services includes jailers and supervisors; public health includes nurses and doctors. If an inmate died, historically each department would conduct parallel investigations.
At his request, Doyle had been allowed to attend the health department’s “morbidity/mortality review” meetings where the deaths have been reviewed, Moore said. Page said Thursday he will asked a newly constituted Justice Services Advisory Board to consider whether the structure of the jail’s management should be changed so that the jail is operated by a single director.
Doyle said on Twitter he is working on a “90-day report” on his progress at the jail. He said he was not authorized to talk to a reporter about the internal communication problem.
‘He doesn’t run the jail’
A lawyer for the mother of one of the dead inmates said Page needs to work with the council to empower their jail chief to investigate the deaths.
“If Doyle cannot weigh in on the hiring and firing of nurses or the provisions of health care in the jail, then he doesn’t run the jail,” said the lawyer, Mark Pedroli of Clayton, who represents Tashonda Troupe, whose son Lamar Catchings died March 1 from leukemia.
All of the cases displayed a pattern of jail staffers refusing to treat very sick patients. In the death of Larry “Jay” Reavis on Jan. 18, an inmate working in the infirmary told police that a guard shrugged off notice that Reavis said he couldn’t get up because he was having a seizure.
John M. Shy, 29, bled to death from an intestinal hemorrhage on Feb. 23. The Clayton Police found two nurses saw him lying in blood at least 15 minutes before anyone entered his cell.
After Catchings, 20, of Jennings, died from leukemia, the police found that a nurse had accused him of faking symptoms four days before he died.
Daniel Stout, 31, died on June 11 from peritonitis caused by an ulcer that perforated his intestine, an autopsy found. A source with knowledge of the case told a reporter that a nurse had refused to come to his cell the night before he died.
The county justice services and health departments — under direction from the county counselor’s office — have refused to release any account of failures that led to the deaths, even declining to send representatives to a public hearing in a County Council inquiry on the jail deaths. In a June 20 letter, a coalition of civil rights groups accused Page and other officials of keeping the public in the dark about the county’s response to the deaths.
Page, a medical doctor, said on Thursday that while it could be necessary in a health care setting for a root cause analysis of a death to be kept confidential, the question of how it should be handled by a government was an example of a “touchy policy question that was just ignored by the previous administration because it was not worth dealing with.”
He said the county’s level of transparency is “ripe for reform. There are so many things we can do better on. And this is where we are going to focus our attention.”