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St. Louis activists question city leaders on jail conditions and health procedures

Sonny Smith, center, speaks alongside Tracy Stanton and Sarah Nixon during a prison reform rally on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, outside the St. Louis City Justice Center. Smith is the son of Terrance Smith, who died in the Justice Center.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Sonny Smith, center, speaks alongside Tracy Stanton and Sarah Nixon during a prison reform rally on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023, outside the St. Louis City Justice Center. Smith is the son of Terrance Smith, who died in the Justice Center.

Advocates for detainees at the St. Louis City Justice Center said Thursday that city leaders must do more to prevent jail deaths and harassment of detainees by corrections officers.

Since 2020, at least 15 people have died at the jail. Some detainees have filed a lawsuit alleging officers have used mace on them and deprived them of water.

During a city Public Safety Committee meeting, activists called for action while city leaders answered questions from aldermen about conditions inside the jail.

“We are still here four years later with the same demands asking that you all do something,” said Tracy Stanton, a member of the Freedom Community Center, an organization that advocates for detainees. “And now that you all are here we need to break those patterns.”

Deaths at the jail and conditions there have led members of the city’s Detention Facilities Oversight Board to call for city officials to ask Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah to resign. Those calls increased during the last half of last year after members of the board said they weren’t given the necessary documents to investigate issues at the jail.

In November, leaders announced that the city had entered into a contract with a new health care provider for the jail.

Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis' health director, called the testimonies shared by activists “devastating” and told committee members and advocates that Mayor Tishaura Jones and her administration have allocated the Health Department $2 million to hire 11 positions and a chief medical officer to strengthen medical oversight at the jail. Hlatshwayo Davis said that 93% of medical staff positions at the jail have been filled, that the Department of Personnel is prioritizing the top job and that she's been meeting with Clemons-Abdullah to review oversight efforts.

But she said the Health Department is facing an uphill battle because it has long been underfunded and is catching up on its review of detainee medical records from the jail’s previous medical provider.

“We’re trying to catch up with the backlog, and we’re trying to do so accurately so that we know how many people either missed care, did not receive care, did not receive medicines for example and then we also want to know what they’re experience is,” Hlatshwayo Davis said.

She wants the department to have its own electronic medical records system and said the mayor is supportive of that.

Protocols to include more jail staff in the debriefings after a jail death are also being updated, Hlatshwayo Davis said.

Activists said that while they’re pleased the city is taking more steps to protect detainees, more needs to be done to address the jail’s systemic issues.

“I am deeply appreciative of her acknowledgement, however, everything before this, we were told numerous times that nothing was wrong, it was individuals’ independent fault, and that we should just sit back because we don't know what we're talking about,” Freedom Community Center Courtwatcher Sarah Rose said.

Clemons-Abdullah, who has overseen the jail since 2021, said jail leaders are working with corrections officers and training them on how to effectively communicate and less frequently use mace. She said that if a detainee is unresponsive, jail staff will typically call emergency personnel before the medical team, depending on the situation.

If a detainee is facing a health issue or a family emergency, the corrections department gets medical providers and the family involved, Clemons-Abdullah said.

Jail leaders are also cracking down on the amount of drugs coming into the jail cell through scanners and reducing phone usage at the jail to reduce the number of drugs coming into the jail.

Laptops and tablets are allowed, Clemons-Abdullah said. But Alderman Bret Narayan worried limiting cellphone usage could hinder attorneys from representing their clients. Last month, jail leaders banned cellphones after a lawyer shared an image of a client with a hernia.

Activists at the meeting said there needs to be greater urgency among city officials to make sure detainees are safe.

“These are government positions, you all applied for this, you understood what you were getting into,” said Janis Mensah, former vice chair of the Detention Facility Oversight Board. “Now you all just need to do the job.”

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Chad Davis is a 2016 graduate of Truman State University where he studied Public Communication and English. At Truman State, Chad served as the executive producer of the on-campus news station, TMN Television. In 2017, Chad joined the St. Louis Public Radio team as the fourth Race and Culture Diversity Fellow. Chad is a native of St. Louis and is a huge hip- hop, r&b, and pop music fan. He also enjoys graphic design, pop culture, film, and comedy.