St. Louis Jail Advocates Blast ‘Sanitized Tour,’ Mayoral Letter

Neither a letter from Mayor Jones nor a visit to the City Justice Center by U.S. Rep. Cori Bush has mollified critics

Sep 12, 2023 at 11:52 am
click to enlarge U.S. Representative Cori Bush outside the city jail on September 8, 2023. - RYAN KRULL
U.S. Representative Cori Bush outside the city jail on September 8, 2023.

When U.S. Representative Cori Bush toured the St. Louis City Justice Center last Friday, what she saw was a "well-prepared sanitized tour" detached from the reality of the jail. That's according to Matthew Mahaffey of the state's public defender office, who is frequently in the jail meeting with clients.

Bush and St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Megan Green spent about 90 minutes in the facility Friday morning. Neither of their offices have commented publicly on what the elected leaders observed beyond a spokesperson for Bush saying the congresswoman is continuing to gather information.

"This is the second time that [Bush] has toured that jail, and both times they have put their best foot forward, which is nothing close to the normal activity going on," says Mahaffey, who was in the facility the same morning as Bush and Green. "Eight deaths in less than two years and zero transparency for the oversight board tells the truth."

Mahaffey says he is personally in the jail once a week and attorneys from his office are there every day, including many weekends.

Critics of the jail's leadership say that staffing shortages play a role in many of the jail’s major issues, which include everything from detainees meeting with attorneys in their underwear to guards being taken hostage.

Two days after the tour, the jail had to temporarily stop processing new detainees, according to an internal communication reviewed by the RFT.

"Prisoner processing will be closed effective immediately," the message read. "This is due to lack of manpower in Prisoner Processing and the Department of Corrections having no space to move prisoners out of the [processing] area."

The same day Bush and Green were in the justice center, Mayor Tishaura Jones sent a letter to the jail's oversight board, which has been publicly frustrated by their inability to investigate deaths at the jail (they count nine since the start of 2022). The two-page letter contained elements of an olive branch to the oversight board members, who are increasingly at odds with the mayor, but also reiterated Jones' support for the head of Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah, whose resignation the board has been increasingly vocal in calling for.

The letter got a chilly reaction at last night's Detention Facility Oversight Board meeting.

"This is not what she campaigned on," board member Mike Milton said at the meeting. "Of all the responses that she could have given about the nine deaths, somehow she's still trying to separate us from actually having a say about what happens inside of the jail."

Milton went on to say that he interpreted the letter as more evidence the mayor intended the oversight board to be "another check off" without any real power.

In the letter, Jones acknowledged that communication around the recent incidents at the jail could have been handled better. She stressed her support for oversight, but said that the members of the board needed to be properly trained before they could have access to the jail.

"This training is not only legally necessary but also essential to protect the civil rights of the detainees," she wrote.

The issue of training has been a key sticking point between the mayor and the board members, who see the city’s requirement of 40 hours of training before they can commence work as more about throwing up impediments than any sort of due diligence.

The city ordinance that created the current iteration of the Detention Facility Oversight Board lays out the requirements for its members' training, including more than a dozen topics that must be covered in that orientation. Some are specific, like Missouri’s Sunshine Law, and others much more broad, like constitutional law and the "history of the relationships between people of color and the economically poor and the police and correctional officers." The mayor's office has been adamant that the training required of board members is in line with the training recommendations made by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Board vice-chair Janis Mensah called Jones' recent letter "nonsense."

"Everything they have written to us in the last two weeks has been garbage," Mensah said last night, referring to both the mayor's letter and one from Director of Public Safety Charles Coyle. "It's absolutely clear to me that the path forward away from the deadliest jail in America is not through the mayor."

Reverend Darryl Gray, who read the mayor's letter into the meeting's record, quipped that it frustrated him so greatly that it affected his blood sugar and he needed to eat a piece of fruit.

However, board members indicated that while they perceive City Hall as being against them, they may be getting some support from the Board of Aldermen.

Gray announced last night that Alderman Rasheen Aldridge, who chairs the aldermanic Public Safety Committee, as well as Alderwoman Alishia Sonnier and Board President Megan Green have indicated that they support legislation to amend the ordinance so that board members can immediately fulfill their duties whether or not the training has been completed.

When and if the oversight board is able to get to work, they will have a significant backlog of complaints to investigate. Last night, board members said that 26 complaints about the jail that fall under their purview were made last year, and 30 have been logged so far in 2023.

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