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'The locks work': St. Louis corrections commissioner expects to move inmates into newly-renovated space this week

Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah said the city has spent about $7 million to fix the locks on one floor of the City Justice Center and has three more floors to go.

ST. LOUIS — New guard stations above the inmates, new doors and new locks that work.

All are part of about $7 million city leaders have spent trying to prevent the multiple riots that happened at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis from playing out again.

In all, detainees let themselves out of their cells by compromising the locks on their cells on at least four occasions during a five-month time span in 2021.

They assaulted guards, set fires and threw furniture out of windows.

Now, after about eight months, the first of four floors that needed to be renovated is finally ready to house about 300 detainees. That’s roughly half of the jail’s average daily population, according to Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah.

She gave the I-Team a tour of the newly-renovated space Tuesday.

“It's been a whirlwind, to say the least, but for the public, it's just something that I think they'll be proud to know that their money's well spent, things are being done in a humane way, and we're going to maintain care and custody as best way we can under the best supervision I can provide,” she said. “We can't control everything, I can't control everything, but what I can say is we're going to give it our best shot.”

Clemons-Abdullah said renovating the entire building will cost close to $19 million, the bulk of which is to pay for new locks, and she doesn’t have a timeline on when it will be completed due to supply chain issues.

She still wants to hire 30 to 50 more corrections officers at a time when hiring is challenging in every industry.

“We'll take 60 or 70 if they come our way,” Clemons-Abdullah said Wednesday during a news conference. “The need is great. It's not just officers, we will need correction workers, reentry people.”

And she’s investigating how her staff handled a 48-year-old inmate who died five days ago.

The Medical Examiner’s Office said Robert Lee Miller died from a pulmonary embolism.

RELATED: Inmate at St. Louis' City Justice Center jail dies

His trial for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl was supposed to start Monday.

Clemons-Abdullah said there is no record of Miller requesting any medical attention, and his cellmate asked a guard to help him. Corrections staff took him to a hospital, where he died.

A fence now allows medical staff to work with detainees behind a barrier instead of having to open a door to face all of the inmates in a common area at the same time.

Additional fencing prevents detainees from getting through to the windows.  

New guard stations perched above the inmates in the common area allow them to monitor inmates coming and going in and out of the recreation area.

“They’ll be able to manage from a bubble versus sitting out in the open,” Clemons-Abdullah said.

Tables are bolted to the floor so they can’t be thrown.

Some of the improvements are also aimed at the morale of inmates.

“Oftentimes attitude reflects leadership," Clemons-Abdullah said Wednesday. “Being fair, firm and consistent is going to play a bigger role. Having the staff communicate in a level that's understandable but being able to get answers will help detainees as well as our staff.”

TVs will be hung from the ceiling in the center of each pod so inmates can see them no matter where they are, and, can listen to them through earphones.

Some of the metal table tops have chess boards etched into them.

All of the doors are new, and the locks are the same as those at the city’s other jail known as the Medium Security Institution along Hall Street.

It’s also been called The Workhouse, and some city leaders now refer to it as the annex. Mayor Tishaura Jones pledged to close it during her campaign and zeroed out its budget not long after taking office in 2021.

Public Safety Director Dan Isom said Mayor Jones is still committed to closing it when the time is right.

“The city continues to work with communities about their vision for how we will use the MSI space in the future,” Isom said Wednesday. "Throughout this process as we move forward into the new phase the health and safety of detainees and our staff is our top priority."

It’s unknown when that facility will close for good.

“You're asking me a $64 million question, and I say that because due to the supply chain issues, due to some of the hiccups we ran into, I can't set a time frame, so the annex would be used for overflow,” Clemons-Abdullah said.

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