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Report finds "systemic failure of leadership" at St. Louis jails

A preliminary review of the St. Louis corrections department finds "numerous weaknesses" in the management, physical structure and operations of the two jails the department oversees.

Six inmates have escaped from the facilities in the last 15 months. Three of the four escapes took place within five months of each other.

Sam Dotson, a police captain serving as the city's operations manager, wrote the report, which he released publicly today. He says he found a culture that was "complacent" and "fostered mediocrity," contributing to problems in all aspects of jail operation, including the recent escapes, an inability to hire enough corrections officers and disregard for basic budget procedures.

From the report:

"Here is the problem in a nutshell: almost all of the guards almost all of the time follow the procedures and protocols. But in a jail, 'almost' does not cut it. To keep a facility safe, the procedures and protocols must be followed all of the time by every corrections officer. That has not happened in the Division of Corrections. That is a management failure."

Dotson repeated that point to reporters today, though he appeared to place responsibility more directly on individual officers.

"We have professionals running our facilities," Dotson said. "The policies are sound. What this is again is the individual failure of the individual corrections officers." The report notes that officers have been disciplined in every escape, but says supervisors often are not.

The escapes and other problems will also be the subject of another committee hearing later this month. The Board of Aldermen today adopted a resolution that gives its Public Safety committee access to documents from the department, as well as subpoena power.

Chairman Gregory Carter says the resolution empowers his panel to get to the bottom of the issues plaguing the department. He says he's especially concerned that some information he was given at the last hearing was contradicted by documents he later obtained. He would not go into details about those differences.

Carter says although Mayor Francis Slay is ultimately in charge of the department, the investigation will not focus solely on him.

"This is just to do with the breakouts, and if it's Charles Bryson, it'll be focused on Charles Bryson," the city's public safety director, Carter said. "If it's some architect flaw, then the city needs to sue whoever."

Bryson has not been publicly disciplined for any of the escapes, but Slay has suspended the corrections commissioner, Gene Stubblefield.  Dotson says the suspension was a start, but says other changes may be coming.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.