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Pandemic issues, city leaders differing on staffing at St. Louis jail among issues fueling riots

The St. Louis Corrections Division is still 76 guards short, about two months after the first riot

ST. LOUIS — City leaders say a slowed court docket along with a small corrections staff are huge problems at the city’s jail, which erupted Sunday in a second riot in less than two months.

But the way those issues are being handled depends on who you ask.

On March 11, the city’s Director of Operations Todd Waelterman told the I-Team Jail Commissioner Dale Glass asked the Division of Personnel to hire 32 guards in June 2020 — but didn’t get a list of candidates back until Dec. 2.

“Well that's just the personnel process, the time they go through … they take resumes, assemble them and put them through,” Waelterman said then.

RELATED: Exclusive: Internal memos show longstanding problems at St. Louis jail

But the city’s Personnel Director Richard Frank blamed the delay on the much-talked-about closure of the city’s other jail, The Medium Security Institution, also known as The Workhouse. Frank said Corrections Commissioner Glass told his deputy director, Linda Thomas, to shut the hiring process down not long after making the June request.

In an email to the I-Team, Thomas wrote: “The Commissioner then submitted a requisition for 32 Correctional Officers on June 26, 2020 and shortly thereafter, requested we not certify due to the MSI situation. We did not receive another requisition until February 9, 2021."

After the Feb. 6 riot, Waelterman told the I-Team the city was 83 guards short, and entered into a $1.2 million contract with a private security firm to add guards inside.

Waelterman said he expected to have “a good 50 or so extra employees” by the end of March.

By Friday, the CJC was still 76 guards short — with 62 applicants awaiting medical and background checks, according to the city’s personnel division.

A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson said he wasn't immediately able to explain the discrepancy between Waelterman's and the Division of Personnel's statements to the I-Team. 

Crews worked most of Monday afternoon to clean up chairs, mattresses and garbage inmates threw from windows they broke while chanting, “We Want Court Dates."

The average length of stay inside the city’s jail has soared during the pandemic as well to 349 days — compared to 185 days in 2018.

Presiding Judge Michael Stelzer said he understands their frustration.

“However, we have to follow guidelines as far as when we take certain steps to open things up more,” he said.

Jury trials have not been allowed to go on inside the courthouse during the pandemic, but, Stelzer said, the courts have been accommodating as many proceedings as possible virtually.

So far this year, there have been 127 felony guilty pleas, one bench trial and one jury trial.

“In a normal year, those numbers would be considerably higher,” Stelzer said.

By this time last year — just before the shutdown hit — the 22nd Judicial Circuit held 20 jury trials.

And no one can force inmates to take plea deals. Asking for a jury trial is their right, Stelzer noted.

“I think that there are some pieces of misinformation out there that we have shut down and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We just have struggled with bringing jurors in under the guidelines that we have to operate under and there really isn't anything that anybody can do about that.”