Raul Banasco has dealt with a host of vexing challenges during his 32-year tenure as a corrections officer, including prisoners dying by suicide and others escaping.
Those experiences may be some of the reasons he felt ready to take on the high-pressure task of becoming director of the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page hired Banasco last month. The New York native is the department’s first permanent director in nearly two years. His tenure begins months after several inmates died in the county jail.
During a wide-ranging interview at his office in the Buzz Westfall Justice Center, Banasco cited professional development within the department as one of his big priorities. He also expressed an eagerness to give the general public a greater sense of what his department and employees do on a day-to-day basis.
“I always say that corrections officers are like customer service agents, because we serve so many different facets of the judicial system — plus we have to answer to the community and family members in making sure they know we’re taking good care of the offenders while they’re in our custody,” Banasco said.
Below are excerpts from Banasco’s interview with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Jason Rosenbaum: Why did you want to come to St. Louis County and take on this very challenging job?
Raul Banasco: I’ve been in the professional field of corrections for over 32 years. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to have some great mentors. There were some challenges that we all face in this profession. And I found it intriguing that I could still give back to the field of corrections, be part of the community, and help in improving some of the systems and processes here within the department.
I want to make it a more effective and efficient place to work.
Rosenbaum: From doing some background research on you, you have encountered some really challenging issues at the various places you’ve worked. Everything from making sure that prisoners don’t escape to making sure that they don’t commit suicide.
Rosenbaum: How did those experiences shape your approach to this job?
Banasco: And thank you for sharing that. The assignments I’ve taken, I’ve always seen it as a calling. People often don’t know the things that happen inside our jails or prisons. And I think the most important thing is, throughout my experiences when we’ve had things that will happen in jails or in prisons — we have to learn from those experiences. And I have shaped my professional development and also provided additional resources and looked at best practices on a national level.
I think it’s important that everyone in society know that 70% of law enforcement is detention — whether it’s a prison or jail, we house them. And whether it was my assignments in Florida or in Texas, it was all about empowering staff, looking at policy and procedures, looking at operations, working collaboratively with other contract services and medical services.
What was always paramount was public safety and ensuring care, custody and control of the offenders — as well as ensuring that we’re treating them respectfully and humanely.
Rosenbaum: The big thing that a lot of people are talking about in St. Louis County is there have been several deaths in this jail before you came here. What are you going to do to ensure that there is the right medical attention and the proper oversight of inmates to make sure medical conditions are taken care of right away.
Banasco: Medical care is paramount in any environment. I had the opportunity to review some of the existing issues that took place prior to my arrival. And one of the things I can say is: Several things under the interim director were immediately addressed. Communication is key. That’s something that I know since I took my role about a week and a half ago. We meet weekly, sometimes once or twice, with our medical provider leadership now about anything that might be a concern when it comes to the health care of our inmates. We’re also looking at practices we’ve been doing within our intake system to make sure we’re improving efficiency and ensuring that our staff, volunteers and offenders are safe.
And we’re being very in tune with national best practices. This facility is a big facility. And we have a very good workforce. I’m very visible. I’m an individual that doesn’t sit behind a desk. My management style is about being transformational — and I’m very in touch. I communicate daily with the inmate population, as well as the staff. I think to be an effective leader and to institute change and to be transformational, you have to engage everyone where they’re at. And even the public. I’ve had individuals that I’ve ran into that have family members here or have had family members here. And they appreciate me coming. And they value my experience. And they look forward to even better things.
We’re looking at improving programs. We’re looking at instituting new initiatives. Because the reality is none of us are ever immune from coming to an environment like this. And our goal is to treat you humanely, provide you with services and help you integrate back — and hopefully stay as a productive citizen and do well for yourself and your family when you get released.
Rosenbaum: Give me a sense of what staff may have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Banasco: An officer that comes to work in a jail environment like ours not only has to account for public safety — securing inmates and making sure we count them. We have to make sure we provide them medical services. We have to ensure that they have a good working and living environment. Some of these inmates work in the kitchen. They do other assignments. So, security is paramount.
And we have to deal with the public. Because we have volunteers that come in. We have contract providers. We have a lot of activity with the attorneys coming in.
Rosenbaum: One of the issues I have to imagine is an issue in every jail in America is dealing with people who are addicted to drugs. They may be going through some pretty serious withdrawal symptoms, or they may want to get treatment for their drug abuse. Have you encountered that problem? And what do you plan to do to deal with that type of scenario?
Banasco: I serve on a few national boards, and that’s something we’re all facing. The challenge that we have in corrections, and especially jail operations across America, is that when individuals are brought into our intake or booking environment — they self-report. They only tell us what we know, because we have very limited information. So that’s why it’s crucial for the first 72 hours or the first five to 10 days that we’re closely observing them. Because that’s usually when they’re going through their withdrawals. That’s why [the medical provider] has a good screening component. Security is being very watchful. In our business, it’s the best practice to house newly admitted offenders together — so we’re watching that particular pod a little closer.
Coming through, we do a good screening component. I’ve seen it. And I come from agencies that have done it where we do a suicide assessment. We basically ask them those key questions so we can make sure from a mental health perspective that our mental health staff are watching them and providing them support — or, in some cases, they have to be given some medication to help them cope with their mental health challenges.
Rosenbaum: If you could name one major priority for the immediate future, what would it be?
Banasco: I think we have a great, great team of staff. But it’s a long time since our leadership, my administrators, and even my foot soldiers on the ground have received some training. Whether it’s from the National Institute of Corrections, or whether it’s through the American Correctional Association or the American Jail Association — those are national bodies that focus on the best practices and the trends — we just need to bring them up to speed.
We are the largest jail in the state. And we are in a situation where people are retiring. So what are we doing about preparing the next individuals to come and take on some key leadership roles? Because at the end of the day, we are responsible for lives — both of staff and offenders — every day. So what we are doing to develop the next set of leaders to lead this organization into the next level?
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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