Getting What You Pay For

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

Providing safe, secure housing for inmates has never been a priority for the city.

The old maximum-security jail was placed under court supervision in 1974 as a result of overcrowding and inhumane conditions, but the city muddled along until it could muddle no more. In early 2000, the city finally closed the jail and sent maximum-security inmates to the workhouse, gambling that a facility that had proved porous would be able to handle the extra prisoners.

Opinions vary on whether the city could have kept the crumbling jail open until the new one is ready.

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

Williams believes that would have been better than overcrowding the workhouse with inmates it wasn't designed to hold.

Frank Susman, the attorney who represented city inmates in a lawsuit over living conditions in the jail and workhouse, says the old jail was too far gone to remain open.

Former public-safety director Martie Aboussie says it would have been a big risk. The roof leaked, the plumbing often didn't work and the ventilation system was hit-and-miss, but the biggest worry was a bulge in an outside wall. "Was it possible that we could have limped through?" he says. "Possible? Yes. If it wasn't for that bulge in the wall, knowing we were going to build this new jail, I probably would have waited the three or four years." But the city had no backup plan in the event of structural failure.

Judge Timothy J. Wilson has had his fingers crossed since the day the old jail closed. Dangerous criminals such as the ones he sees in his courtroom don't belong in the workhouse, Wilson warns. He also worries about violence at the courthouse. Before the jail closed, the accused were brought directly to court through a tunnel.

"It's not a group of people who mildly misstepped in life -- if you saw a printout of the people being held out there, the crimes they're charged with, it would take your breath away," Wilson says. "There are irate family members of the deceased who would like to get a pop at these guys. The way we do it now, we bring them in a van; we walk them on a public sidewalk and through a public corridor. There have been some things in the hallways, someone running off. We luckily catch them before they get far. But it's just not a safe way to operate.

"I think we're on borrowed time, and we've been doing it for three years now."

Slay was president of the Board of Aldermen when the city announced plans for its new jail back in 1996. At the time, it was supposed to cost $76 million and open in 1999. The old jail would have remained open until the new one opened, eliminating the need to put high-security inmates in the workhouse. Although Slay supported the plan, he either didn't have the political skills needed to push it through the board or didn't consider it a priority. Aldermanic squabbles over the location, design and funding source jacked up the price and delayed the project, which will now cost more than $100 million.

The deal to move inmates to the county lockup cost the city $8,000 more annually than running the old jail, but Slay saw it as money well spent. "I think it is a great idea," Slay told the Post-Dispatch when the agreement was announced. "This allows employees to get trained at a new jail that is similar to our planned jail. I don't see why the Board of Aldermen wouldn't like this."

But there are plenty of reasons to not like the city's deal with the county. By closing the old jail before the new one was ready, the city put itself at the mercy of the county, which could dictate the contract terms. County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall et al took full advantage.

For the county, it's all about the Benjamins, right down to the telephones: The county gets to keep profits from jailhouse collect calls made by city inmates. The city must also provide guards to oversee its inmates -- the county provides little more than laundry service, food and keys to cells. (By contrast, suburban municipalities have all services provided for the same per diem rate paid by the city). More significantly, the county decides which city inmates will do time in Clayton.

The county isn't taking any chances.

The county accepts only minimum- and medium-security inmates from the city, and the county can order problem inmates removed within 24 hours. The county also won't put up with inadequate supervision. Under the contract, the city must provide at least 10 guards and supervisors to oversee a maximum of 256 inmates confined on one floor. On a per-inmate basis, that's a higher staffing level than at the workhouse, where 33 corrections officers guarded nearly 1,100 inmates on the day of the most recent escapes. Furthermore, any guard whom the county doesn't like must be shipped out, ensuring that the city's best and brightest corrections employees are in Clayton, while those who can't pass county muster end up at the workhouse, watching the worst of the worst.

In short, this is regionalism, St. Louis-style.

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