New St. Louis County jail head talks about challenges and opportunities
Scott Anders came to the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services from the federal probation system. That past career, he said, taught him the importance of getting people the skills they need to reenter society. And it’s a focus he plans to keep in his new position as the department’s acting director.
“The majority of people are released back into the community,” he said. “That just really affirms the importance” of giving detainees the tools to enable them to make sound decisions when they are released.
Anders recently spoke with St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Lippmann: You are the fourth director of the department in two years. How will you bring a sense of stability?
Scott Anders: As we make changes, it’s important that staff have the needed training so we can develop leadership skills of the staff and the management team. That will help us with retaining qualified staff. The recent pay increase is helping us — we were losing staff to other jails that pay more and to private industry, which was offering signing bonuses.
I also think that some of the programs we’re initiating with the community colleges and the unions are important not just for the residents, but for the staff, so they’re able to see the difference we can make.
Lippmann: Funding for that raise currently comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act — a one-time source of funds. How will you work to maintain these raises in future budgets?
Anders: While we were short-staffed, a lot of the staff was having to work overtime, which is very costly. Just by hiring and retaining the staff that are needed, we’ll be able to reduce our overtime expenses, which will help cover those costs. And as we begin to be more efficient with scheduling, and in accessing grants, all of those types of things will help us to be able to cover the cost of that raise.
Lippmann: One of the biggest challenges for corrections officials across the country has been the coronavirus pandemic. With the omicron variant being so contagious, how are you preparing for a possible surge in cases?
Anders: We were recently highlighted in a national journal for having one of the lowest rates of infection in corrections facilities across the country — only 5% of our inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. When people come into the jail, they are housed separately. We’re also continuing to provide education. And having the St. Louis County health department also helps in terms of being able to get residents vaccinated and that we have adequate testing.
Lippmann: How are you doing at getting jail residents, and those they interact with, especially the corrections officers, vaccinated?
Anders: About two-thirds of our staff are vaccinated, and the rest are undergoing weekly testing. We make sure that if someone does test positive they don’t come into the jail. We’re also requiring that of contractors and volunteers.
Lippmann: The pandemic has also led to a backlog in the courts, and that’s leading to longer jail stays. What difficulties has that presented to you and your corrections officers when it comes to managing the population?
Anders: It’s been challenging. The last year and a half, it’s moved toward about two-thirds of the population being here for violent crimes, so it’s definitely become a higher-risk environment for the staff.
At the same time, we’ve been looking at release plans for those that are lower-risk, but may not be able to post bond or don’t have a home plan. We’ve implemented a GPS program, where, if the courts are willing, we can supervise that person on location monitoring. We also have a ministerial bond program where people can be released with the supervision of a mentor. We’re looking at creative ways to manage that from both sides.
Lippmann: What’s been the cost to the inmates of some of the measures that had to be put in place to control the pandemic?
Anders: Early on in the pandemic, they were not able to be out in groups very long at all. That limited the amount of time they could spend out on recreation. We were also limited to groups of 10 for programming. Over the last couple of months, as we grew ever more short-staffed, and following the two assaults on corrections officers, we had to suspend those programs completely.
But during that time we have also been implementing tablets, which have allowed residents to access educational material, videos, music, and be able to communicate with their families by phone and email. We’ve also implemented some video phone systems as well. Both of those resources will be really helpful when we start the educational programs.
Lippmann: How are the changes you pledged to make after those assaults going?
Anders: It’s going very well. The day after the second assault, we started requiring two corrections officers in each pod when residents are out of their cells. With the residents here being incarcerated for more violent offenses, having two officers in the pod improves the officer’s safety. We’ve also been holding defensive tactics training, and we’re bringing in some experts to develop additional ongoing training.
We’re also trying to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the facility. We’ll have some training for staff to recognize when someone is under the influence of drugs, or having a mental health episode.
We’re addressing this from a variety of different angles. This is going to be an ongoing process. We’re communicating with staff to make sure that we understand their concerns and can address them as quickly as possible. Safety is a No. 1 priority for us now.
Lippmann: Will the raise be enough to get staffing levels to a point where programming can resume, and you can have those two officers in a pod when inmates are out?
Anders: Definitely. In the few weeks since the raise has passed, we’ve filled an additional 20 officer positions. We have a class of 10 new recruits that just started in mid-December, and we conducted interviews last week and will have 13 additional officers starting soon. We’ll be holding interviews every two weeks.
Lippmann: Negotiating the politics of St. Louis County can be a bit of a minefield. How do you view your relationship with those who are ultimately responsible for helping you secure the funding you need to run the Department of Justice Services the way you want?
Anders: We have excellent relationships and great support in terms of addressing the needs at the jail. I think keeping them aware of the needs we have, the reasons behind them, and updating them on our progress is really important to maintaining the momentum that we have now.
Lippmann: How would you characterize your relationship with the Justice Services Advisory Board, and how do you hope to use their expertise?
Anders: We have an excellent advisory board. They are committed to making sure we have the resources we need, and to helping us become the best jail not just in Missouri, but across the country.
We have experts with experience in research, in social work, and we have an advisory board member who was formerly incarcerated, and community advocates as well. It’s important that we continue to hear from them in terms of their knowledge and their experiences, and use them to continue to develop resources to achieve those goals that we have.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann