ST. LOUIS–(KMOX)–Like a prison break movie, the suspense is building toward the final reel, as the board of aldermen tunnels ahead with hearings into how and why several inmates broke out recently from the city’s two jails.
Testimony Monday from City Personnel Director Richard Frank revealed that staff shortages are so chronic that 100 percent of corrections department employees have been working overtime to keep the jails guarded. Some guards, Frank said, have been working 16 hour shifts one day after another. Among other things, Aldermen are trying to determine whether guards failed to prevent escapes because they were worn out.
“I can’t say that exactly , but I think it’s an overall contribution to poor performance on the part of some employees,” Frank said.
Alderman Antonio French is concerned there could be a direct link between excessive overtime and security lapses. “When you make these budgetary cuts and you make it necessary just for the department to function that every employee is required to work over 40 hours,” French said, “You have to expect that there is going to be reduced awareness, that there’s going to be more error.”
Who made the corrections department budget cuts and were they aware that the cuts could erode jail security?
Defending the Slay Administration, Operations Director Sam Dotson says none of the escapes happened under the watchful eye of guards working overtime. “These escapes happened because of individual failures,” Dotson said. KMOX asked Dotson if the guards blamed for the recent escapes had been working overtime in the days leading up to the break-outs. He was unable to answer
Supporting the Slay administration take on the escapes — at least so far — Alderman Fred Wessels does not see a link between escapes and overtime.
“The picture that I see on escapes is that it was caused by individual error and it has nothing to do with a shortage of staff or being overworked,” Wessels said. Wessels was astonished to learn Monday from Frank’s testimony that 40 percent of the corrections department staff are on “family leave.” (Frank suggested that overworked guards are resorting to family leave to make up for excessive overtime.)
On Tuesday, suspended Corrections Commissioner Gene Stubblefield is scheduled to testify. There’s considerable suspense as to what he will say, as Stubblefield appears to have warned the Slay administration in leaked memos that failure to fill staff vacancies could hurt security.
The hearings are not without their political behind the scenes drama. Mayor Slay’s Operation’s Director Dotson has been acting as “the cleaner,” doing all the messy interviews on the escapes, shielding Public Safety Director Charles Bryson and Mayor Slay himself from the fray.
The hearings also provide possible political ammunition for Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who is widely believed to be contemplating a run for Mayor. In recent weeks, Reed has portrayed the Slay Administration as having made “irresponsible budget cuts” during the recession — cuts Reed has sought to link to jail escapes, dogs running loose and the recently rescinded furloughs
of city workers.