Zen and the Art of Evasion

An alleged rape points to big workhouse problems

Arthur T. Reed was helping out in a storeroom at the St. Louis workhouse in May when he caught Robert Mason, a jailhouse inventory coordinator, masturbating while watching pornography on a laptop computer.

Reed, who's facing burglary charges, was already feeling plenty weird about Mason, who earlier that day had told him he was living with an ex-inmate whom he'd met in the storeroom. They were lovers, Mason said. Right then, Reed says, he decided he didn't want to work with Mason anymore.

But Reed didn't run when he found Mason at the laptop. Rather, he says, he told Mason that he would report him to workhouse brass. Then he went to another area to gather the clean underwear and T-shirts that are his pay. "I get brand-new stuff," he explains. "That's how I make my hustle -- I sell them. That's money in here."

Reed never got his money.

As he gathered clothing, Reed says, someone smashed him on the back of the head with a hard object. He fell forward, hitting the front of his head on a cabinet. Guards came inside to find Reed unconscious, with his pants down.

Though he can't remember what happened after he lost consciousness, Reed says he knows he was raped. "I could tell that I had been sexually assaulted," he says. "I was just wet and gooshy, man."

Mason couldn't be reached for comment. According to workhouse officials, he admitted to police that he'd had sexual contact with Reed but denied penetrating him. He claimed the contact was consensual. Facing dismissal, he resigned. As a city employee since 1977, Mason is now collecting retirement benefits. But he isn't being prosecuted.

For so-inclined employees of jails and prisons in Missouri, it's a case of get-it-while-you-can when it comes to sex with inmates. Until August 22, when a state law takes effect that makes sex between inmates and corrections employees a felony, consent is a defense. Unless there's a witness, it's tough to prove rape when accusers such as Reed are felons. And in a place like the workhouse, where security is notoriously lax, prisoners are especially at risk.

Judging by a U.S. Department of Justice report on the workhouse, it's a wonder that escapes and rapes don't happen every day.

At the request of city officials, corrections consultant John T. Milosovich was hired by the Justice Department to assess the workhouse after five inmates escaped in February.

Milosovich found an operation plagued with problems: The staff doesn't keep track of keys. There aren't enough security cameras, and those that are in place are aimed in the wrong direction. There's no way to account for tools that can be turned into weapons or used in escapes. The door between housing areas for men and women isn't locked. Metal bars that are supposed to keep inmates in their housing units hang loose, and employees don't tap on them to check whether they're secure. Inmate counts are haphazard. Written policies on how to run the place are either outdated or nonexistent. Nationally accepted standards for supervising inmates are unknown by staff. Contractors who roam the hallways unescorted aren't subject to background checks.

The list of deficiencies and recommended improvements goes on and on, taking up 29 pages.

The situation is so bad that Milosovich, who visited the workhouse in March, has recommended that the workhouse determine a purpose for front-gate searches. He found that guards weren't requiring visitors to empty their pockets, and patdown searches ended at the knees.

That's no surprise to JoAnn Williams, union rep for the jailers. "I've had correctional officers who have been removed from doing searches because people complained that they were too thorough," she says.

Dora Schriro, city corrections commissioner, isn't shocked, either.

"There's nothing in that report that surprises me," says Schriro, hired in October to clean up the cesspool of neglect and incompetence that is the workhouse. "Broken is broken, and it takes a long time to fix."

Schriro says the city has spent nearly $900,000 this year improving workhouse security, and most of the problems identified by Milosovich had been tagged by her before the February escapes put the crisis on Mayor Francis Slay's front burner. Many of the problems highlighted by Milosovich have been fixed, she says, and between $400,000 and $500,000 is needed to remedy remaining shortcomings.

But problems at the workhouse aren't all broken windows, broken cameras and broken locks. From the looks of Milosovich's report, basic common sense is sorely lacking. Asked about the lackadaisical visitor searches and Milosovich's recommendation that the city establish a purpose for them, Schriro waxes philosophical. "It's not just explaining how to do something but why you're doing it, so that they understand the rationale behind the search," she says. "It's a little bit of getting into the Zen, if you will."

It doesn't take a Buddhist to know that jailhouse visitors should be thoroughly searched so they don't bring in weapons, drugs or other contraband. If workhouse guards and their supervisors are really that clueless, all the money in the world won't help.

Since Schriro was hired, six inmates have escaped in two incidents, one inmate has committed suicide and police were called in December to quell an uprising. Only after the February escapes did heads begin to roll. The workhouse manager and chief of security were fired soon after the escapes. Schriro says their replacements are top-notch, and she says she enjoys the full confidence of Slay, even though he suspended her for two weeks after the February escapes. "We're really putting together a very strong team," she says. "The critical positions are being filled with very, very smart, very strong people."

At $115,024 per year, Schriro is the sixth-highest-paid city employee, earning even more than her boss, public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer. Her predecessor, Alice Pollard-Buckingham, earned $82,810.

Workhouse superintendent Dennis L. Blackman, who had held his job for four years, was fired two weeks ago. City officials won't go into detail about the reasons, saying only that Schriro sent him packing after he failed to improve his performance after being placed on probation on March 1.

One mistake Blackman made was to ignore rumors that Mason was living with an ex-inmate turned lover, a blatant violation of workhouse policy that forbids employees from fraternizing with felons. Blackman kept his job for nearly two months after admitting that he hadn't checked out the rumors, which proved true.

Reed says Mason should be prosecuted, but that won't happen.

"There are not going to be charges," says Ed Postawko, section chief of the circuit attorney's sex-crimes and child-abuse unit. "The evidence just isn't there."

Postawko won't talk about the case in detail, but Mason passed a polygraph test and doctors found no evidence of rectal trauma, says public-safety director Ed Bushmeyer in a June 6 letter to Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (D-20th Ward), who wrote to him inquiring about the incident. Nor did Reed have a wound on the back of his head to bolster his story that Mason cold-cocked him, Bushmeyer wrote, but he did have a cut on his forehead.

Just why guards interrupted the encounter remains a mystery. One version of the story has guards bursting into the store room after hearing a commotion; another has Mason himself calling in guards. Postawko says prosecutors weren't able to determine which account is accurate.

Reed says there's no way he had consensual sex with Mason. If anyone wonders whether he's gay, Reed says, they can ask his pregnant girlfriend.

Reed says life on the inside hasn't been the same since his encounter with Mason.

"They're treating me like shit," he says. "Talk bad about me. They kicked me off my job without writing me up."

Though she says sex between inmates and employees can never be truly consensual, Schriro says she doesn't think this was a case of rape, at least as it's defined by state law.

"Based on the facts, and I think they're laid out in Ed's letter, it would suggest that the former employee's account of a voluntary sexual encounter is more likely the truthful account," she says. The incident prompted a review of every inmate's work assignment to determine that he or she is appropriately placed, she adds. And she insists there's light at the end of the workhouse tunnel.

"I'm very heartened by measurable, sustained progress," she says. "But we still have a substantial way to go."