ST. LOUIS — Charlene Deeken isn’t one for the spotlight, but this week’s abrupt retirement of Corrections Division Commissioner Dale Glass changed that.
“You know I’m not keen on this sort of thing,” she told me as our interview began. “But this bothers me a lot.
“It bothers me a great deal that he's been disrespected in this fashion.”
Deeken retired April 20, the day St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones was sworn into office, after a 40-year career with the city. The last third of her career she spent as the Deputy Director of Public Safety.
It was a planned departure, she said, orchestrated long before Lyda Krewson announced she would not seek reelection.
Deeken served as the Interim Director of Public Safety whenever there was a changing of the guard – at least three times in about 14 years.
Watch Deeken's interview in the video player below.
She was there when the city hired Glass to oversee the city’s two jails in 2012, replacing Gene Stubblefield after then-Mayor Francis Slay fired him. Back then, there were multiple jailbreaks, out-of-control overtime budgets and other issues.
I remember the glowing press release announcing Glass’s hiring. It talked about how he brought with him 28 years of experience as a state corrections worker who retired in 2009 as deputy warden of the Missouri Department of Corrections in Pacific where he supervised 1,100 male inmates and 300 employees.
But the past year hasn’t gone well for the Division of Corrections.
And the press release announcing his retirement wasn’t so glowing.
“Failed leadership overseeing the city’s Corrections Division has left the city with a huge mess to clean up,” Jones wrote. “Between failing locks, lackluster maintenance, and subhuman conditions for the detainees under our care, it only further justifies my promise to shut down the Workhouse within my first 100 days.
“We look forward to bringing effective leadership into the Corrections Division that can account for these issues and raise the bar on effective management and oversight of the City Justice Center.”
Congresswoman Cori Bush joined Jones and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner on a recent tour of the city’s two jails, after which they told reporters the conditions at the Medium Security Institution along Hall Street were inhumane.
In the press release announcing Glass’s retirement, Bush wrote: “Transforming our approach to public safety in St. Louis has been long overdue, and the Mayor’s bold and early leadership on this issue has been exemplary…We share a commitment to reducing harm in our communities and ending the cycles of trauma that have caused far too many of our neighbors to be locked up in our city’s jails.”
Glass has not returned our calls.
Bush's representative said the Congresswoman's statement speaks for itself and declined to comment on Deeken's accusations.
Jones' Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom said he was not going to get into a debate about the conditions inside the jails.
"There are opinions on what the conditions are like inside MSI and CJC," he said. "But what we do know is that there have not been repairs to both MSI and the Justice Center for many years, not the least of which were the locks that had not been repaired and, from what we know, there was knowledge that this was a very dangerous situation not only for the inmates but for the employees as well.
Isom said employees have told him they have spoken out about the security concerns many times.
"We don't know who is responsible or who to assign blame to, but it's pretty clear there are significant problems at both facilities."
Deeken said she’s been toured the city’s jails many times and has not seen the conditions Jones and Bush described in the release about Glass’s retirement.
“His reputation has been besmirched and it’s totally unfair and untrue,” Deeken said.
She acknowledged a staffing shortage among corrections officers grew to about 80 during the pandemic.
And the average length of stay for detainees skyrocketed to more than 300 days as the courthouse shut its doors to trials and the prosecuting attorney’s office slowed moving cases through the courts, according to a task force report on what led up to two riots in the downtown jail this year.
As inmates stayed longer, news about how to compromise faulty locks on the cells in the downtown jail spread.
So doesn’t the buck have to stop somewhere?
Deeken says Glass did all he could to try to fix the locks during the years he was at the helm.
“Have we kicked the can down road? You bet we have because there’s been competing interests for a limited amount of money,” she said. “If we need trash trucks, fire trucks, police cars, body worn cameras, Cure Violence, there’s only so much money that goes around but that’s not to say we haven’t spent millions of dollars on the jail in the last few years because we have.”
The jail she’s referring to is the Medium Security Institution, also known as The Workhouse.
“I wish you wouldn’t call it that,” she said. “It’s the Medium Security Institution.
“The Workhouse used to be on Broadway and it was where people used to be able to work off their debts years ago.”
And, she says, the inhumane conditions Jones, Bush and Gardner described are false.
“I want her to be successful because this is my hometown, and my children and grandchildren live and play here, but it is never the right thing to do to make yourself look good or try to make a point at someone else’s expense particularly if it is untrue,” she said.
So what are conditions like there?
“If there is an expectation that a building as old as the Medium Security Institution is perfect, then that expectation is clearly too high,” she said. “The city has spent millions and millions of dollars in upgrading the facility and millions and millions of dollars would be required to make it a state-of-the-art facility which, quite frankly, would be silly because it's old.
“I think that a longer-term strategy would be to vacate the premises but there needs to be a plan B.”
Jones’ plan B so far includes consolidating detainees into the downtown jail by July 1 – where repairs to faulty locks are still underway.
5 On Your Side first reported U.S. Marshals have begun moving their detainees out of the downtown facility in response – which means the city stands to lose about $6 to $8 million from the federal government. And those inmates are being spread across the state sometimes hours away from their families, attorneys and the courthouse.
When they were housed in St. Louis, Glass created numerous programs for inmates during his tenure including Occupational Therapy, GED classes, credentialing for inmates to work in restaurants, baking and cooking classes, Deeken said.
“It’s unconscionable what they're doing to him,” Deeken said.
But the last line of the mayor’s press release noted Glass was “not asked to retire.”
Deeken said Glass would have stayed around for a few more years.
“He was put into position to have to defend himself against allegations of mistreatment of inmates, which were not true,” she said. “And knowing his personality, and his interests, apart from work in his family and his grandchildren, I just think that he had enough.”
So he took himself out of the spotlight.