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St. Louis aldermen: jail security problems make us look like a joke

(St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department)
Lorenzo Pollard, pictured here, is the sixth inmate to escape from a city jail in 15 months. On Wednesday, the city's public safety committee called security conditions at the jail a "joke"

Four jail breaks in 15 months make the city of St. Louis look like a joke.

That was the general consensus of members of the Public Safety committee  on Wednesday following two hours of testimony on the rash of escapes.

In the most recent incident, on Friday, 31-year-old Lorenzo Pollard, an inmate at the city's medium security facility on the north side,  fought off nearly a dozen guards with makeshift nunchucks, using them to shatter a glass wall. Pollard then climbed two barbed wire fences. It was the fourth escape since June 2010, and the third from the north side jail, also known as the workhouse.

In all four cases, there were "human and equipment" failures, said public safety director Charles Bryson. Corrections officers were disciplined in every case, and one guard, Mori Farrell, faces criminal charges for lying about doing required checks on inmates.

"But I will say that we have not been doing a good job of making sure that lieutenants and captains do their job," Bryson said. "Once you get higher up in management  you have more responsibility."

In that vein, Mayor Francis Slay brought in Sam Dotson, a St. Louis police captain, to focus on corrections and public safety. It was Dotson's review of jail management that led to Slay's decision on Friday to indefinitely suspended corrections commissioner Gene Stubblefield. The suspension occurred just hours before Pollard's escape.

"We have looked at it, and we realize that are failings not only at the CO level but as you go through the organization. So if we addressed them at the CO level, which I believe we are doing and have done, we also needed to work at the top," Dotson said.

Most aldermen, though, were unimpressed.

"We've had the same problem festering for the last 15 years," said Ald. Larry Arnowitz, a former city employee.  "And you know what? It all starts at the top. It's not being run right. If you have escapes, nobody is doing their job." He and JoAnn Williams, the head of the union that represents guards, say nepotism is rampant in the department.

Nothing's been done to change the culture at the jails, said Ald. Antonio French, and he doesn't think people have faith the current team can change things.

"It reminds me of FEMA and Katrina, where political appointments have been made, and you've put unqualified people in very important positions," French said. "And then we're surprised when we have escape after escape after escape."

Bryson, the public safety director, has a background in youth and homeless services, and admitted to committee members this afternoon that he had no public safety background.

Mayor Slay says other changes will be made, but did not give specifics.

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