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'Fairly clean, orderly': Some skeptical of St. Louis County jail audit

The audit was presented Friday and offered dozens of recommendations, but an overall positive assessment of the Clayton facility.

CLAYTON, Mo. — Seven inmate deaths – two within the past few weeks – since 2019.

There have been assaults and indictments involving corrections staff. There were five directors in six years.

All are true of the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton.

Despite all of those facts, consultants hired by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration say they didn’t find the facility to be as bad as they thought it would be as they launched an audit process in October 2021.

“When we went into this, based on a lot of the media attention, we were expecting, frankly, a pretty grim situation,” said Karl Becker, vice-president of CGL Companies. “Maybe it's just a function of the number of jails we see around the country, but we were pleasantly surprised and we found the Justice Center to have a fairly clean, orderly environment.”

The county spent $121,000 on the 128-page report.

Former Advisory Board Member the Rev. Phillip Duvall took issue with Becker’s assessment.

“Why would you have 70 some recommendations if the place isn't as bad as you're claiming that it's not and that it's just negative press?” he said. “Sounds like they're blaming the media and the press on the reporting of the issues versus what is the root cause of those issues.”

At least one current board member balked at listening to the presentation after being given the report about 10 minutes before the meeting Friday.

A spokesman for Page said in a statement the report was released “as soon as it was finalized.”

“I don't feel like I can have a coherent conversation about this without having consumed the document,” McBride said.

Chairman Jeff Smith then vowed to devote the board’s next meeting to any questions members might have after digesting the document during the next few weeks. That meeting is scheduled for the end of August, which Duvall notes is after the primary election.

McBride said he wanted to be assured that would be reflected on the agenda so county attorneys would not try to block the conversation by saying it was not an agenda item.

“Otherwise I’ll shut the meeting down,” McBride said.

County Counselor Genevieve Frank recommended the board not discuss the status of autopsies into the deaths of two inmates at the jail in recent weeks because it was not on the agenda. Chairman Jeff Smith said the board wanted to hear from the health department’s Dr. Faisal Khan about it anyway. 

“I cannot give you a timetable,” Khan said.

The board then moved into Becker’s presentation, which included more than 70 recommendations.

They included:

  • Hiring 346 full-time employees to allow normal operation of current housing units, which could reduce annual overtime spending by $1.2 million.
  • Hiring an onsite psychiatrist. The current one lives in Arizona and is available only via videoconferencing
  • Getting accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

Some of the conclusions included:

  • Following assaults on staff there late last year, management required a second officer in every housing unit when inmates are out of cells, which “severely impedes inmate access to out-of-cell time, recreation, and program services and is not sustainable in the long-term"
  • The facility’s supervisory structure is top-heavy.

The consultants noted that they weren’t given police reports on the deaths of five inmates that happened in 2019.

“Each death was found to be a result of medical conditions,” according to the report.

It continued: “Two separate instances are noted of medical staff stating that inmates were faking illness and they did not follow-up. In one case, a healthcare manager stated during an interview that inmates would not be seen by medical sick call solely based on the referral of security personnel. This is contrary to standard practice in most jails, as security personnel often have the most interaction with inmates and are likely be the best source of information related to their condition.”

The consultants also slammed Page’s hire of Jail Center Director Raul Banasco, who resigned in 2020.

“The tenure of a former Justice Center Director was described as a time of extreme stress resulting from an autocratic leadership approach with inconsistent and arbitrary decision-making,” according to the report. "Some staff reported to have been victimized by episodes of verbal abuse by the former director. Staff that were employed during that period consistently described a turbulent time which resulted in long-term damage to the facility’s work environment.”

Duvall resigned in May after serving for three years on the board out of “frustration.”

He said the board needs to disband and an oversight board with subpoena powers – like one just formed in St. Louis – needs to form to affect real change.

You can read the full report here:

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