Getting What You Pay For

Blame for problems at the workhouse goes all the way to the top

Like a whole platoon of Capt. Renaults, Mayor Francis Slay and his henchmen professed to be shocked -- shocked -- to learn that the city workhouse is bursting with dangerous inmates who are just a bedsheet-rope away from freedom.

Heads, the mayor promised, would roll. He could hardly say otherwise, given the ridiculous ease with which five inmates sauntered out of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution on Feb. 23. Guard towers on the perimeter were empty. There were no surveillance cameras in place. A motion detector on the outside fence didn't work. Security checks by guards were haphazard. Escaping was a simple matter of scraping away mortar and moving aside a few bricks.

The workhouse's response was hardly textbook. Jailers were late in notifying police and couldn't provide officers with identification photos of the fugitives. It didn't help matters that this was the second escape within two weeks. On Feb. 15, a suspected double murderer walked free by swapping identification wristbands with an inmate due to be freed on bail. In that case, jailers waited 30 minutes after discovering the escape before calling police.

The St. Louis Medium Security Institution
Jennifer Silverberg
The St. Louis Medium Security Institution

Yes, plenty of mistakes made it easy for the mayor to point fingers. On Friday, he announced the suspensions of five corrections employees -- including public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer and corrections commissioner Dora Schriro -- and the firings of the workhouse's chief of security, Michael McKinney, and the building manager, Chuck Cox.

"Our investigation clearly shows this was a management issue," Slay said. "I will not tolerate mediocrity in city government. Everyone knows this just better not happen again."

It's considerably more difficult to accept responsibility for countenancing a corrections system that's been on the brink of disaster for years.

The medium-security workhouse has been stuffed with St. Louis' most dangerous inmates since the city closed its maximum-security jail more than two years ago. What was once a relatively secure repository for murderers, rapists and gun-toting robbers is now a parking lot generating money for the city from Blues fans and other denizens of Savvis Center. The city's new jail under construction across Tucker Boulevard from the courthouse won't be ready for occupancy until this fall. Meanwhile, the city is paying St. Louis County nearly $3 million a year to house prisoners.

The old jail, built in 1914, was far from ideal, but at least it kept inmates where they belonged. More than 130 inmates have fled the workhouse since it opened in 1966, so the recent breakouts shouldn't have been a surprise to Slay or anyone else. Workhouse escapes haven't been the work of masterminds. In November 1999, for instance, an inmate walked out through an unlocked door. He returned after getting hung up on a razor-ribbon fence, then left again through the same door a few minutes later. After scaling the fence, he stole a car and led police on a chase that ended in East St. Louis. Before being captured, he punched a man who refused him a cigarette outside the workhouse and terrorized a woman during a carjacking, hitting her in the face and pushing her out of her moving car. The workhouse discovered the escape after police called and said they had made the arrest.

Heads didn't roll then -- the escape wasn't even mentioned in the Post-Dispatch. Heads didn't roll after six workhouse inmates committed suicide in the space of nine months -- the hangings continued even after an outside consultant found that training, equipment and policies to prevent suicides were sorely lacking [Rushton, "Unlucky Seven," Nov. 7]. Heads didn't roll after a workhouse uprising in December, when inmates briefly took control of a housing unit, nor did Slay talk about firing anyone after the Feb. 15 escape. No one was overly alarmed when guards picketed the workhouse in the summer of 2000, complaining about inadequate training, broken alarms and a lack of staff that compromised security.

"What I find amazing is why now it's a major problem," says JoAnn Williams, business representative for the guards' union, who for years has mailed the mayor and aldermen copies of union-newsletter articles warning about security and staffing problems at the workhouse. "They're not even new situations."

Slay admitted as much in announcing the suspensions and firings. He said he brought in Schriro to fix the workhouse and defended her, noting that she was hired only last fall. Her underlings didn't tell her a tipster had reported that an escape was in the works, said Slay, who pinned the blame on McKinney and Cox for not acting on the tip and informing their superiors. The mayor says Schriro and Bushmeyer still have his confidence. "The system was broken," the mayor said. "Anyone I've talked to out there says it's a management nightmare. You can't fix this in four months."

Curious, then, that the mayor used a shotgun to discipline seven employees, including his designated reformers, when the real culprits were longtime workhouse employees who have learned from experience that the city doesn't take security seriously. The head-chopping and knuckle-rapping rhetoric from Slay may be the best political damage control available, but it also threatens to undercut Schriro's authority with the workhouse troops, who answer to her day in and day out. Without explaining just what Schriro did wrong, the mayor has missed a chance to let her be the one to take strong action and leave no question as to who's in charge at the workhouse.

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