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Committee grills Bryson on jail staffing, budget

Charles Bryson testifies under oath in front of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen on Oct. 17, 2011.
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Charles Bryson testifies under oath in front of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Aldermen on Oct. 17, 2011.

The head of the public safety department of the city of St. Louis spent nearly two hours on the hot seat today, facing questions under oath about the management of the two jails under his control.

Six inmates have escaped from the jails - two from the maximum-security City Justice Center and four from the Medium Security Institute - in the past 15 months. Corrections commissioner Gene Stubblefield is already on forced leave for the incidents, which apreliminary report by Mayor Francis Slay's office blamed on a "systemic failure of leadership."

"I think there are some failures on a correctional officer level, and a continued surveillance level," Bryson said. "That's what really makes a jail well run, is there's always a check and balance at every point."

Aldermen grilled Bryson about staffing decisions he made, especially his inability to fill vacant corrections officers positions.

"Do you think the place right now is staffed adequately?" Ald. Antonio French asked. "No," Bryson answered. "Is every post filled? Yes. Do we need more people so that people aren't working 10+  hour days, that answer is also yes. That's what we're committed to do."

He said the long days were not a factor in any of the escapes, even combined with maintenance and security issues that leave about 50 cells at each of the two jails out of commission.

"Staff has stepped up to the plate, and they monitor very, very closely inmate movement and inmate activity," Bryson said. "I don't think it's any more or less safe."

Positions are filled at the request of the corrections commissioner or that person's designee, based on the current and anticipated vacancies, Bryson said.

"Every time a request has come across my desk, I have signed it," Bryson said. "So why were the C.O. position not filled?" French asked. "I would ask that due to the ongoing investigation of Commissioner Stubblefield that I reserve the right not to answer that question," Bryson said after a pause.

Bryson also faced related questions about an ongoing staffing pattern where guards worked "out of classification" - essentially taking on supervisory roles for which they were not getting paid and often were not trained.

"In order to fill those posts, did you have people working out of their classifications?" French asked. "No," Bryson started to say, as chairman Gregory Carter reminded him that he was under oath.

Bryson conceded that in some cases, a corrections officer may take on some of the responsibilities of a lieutenant, but never for an extended period. But in fact a group of commanding officers filed a lawsuit to receive the increased pay they were entitled after working out of class.

"And that happens because the positions were left vacant?" French asked. When Bryson answered yes, French again asked him why those positions were not filled.

"We are investigating the issue of hiring and so I would defer that comment," Bryson said. "But every time a request came across my desk, I signed it and sent it to the appropriate channel. Every single time."

French later read from a memo that the Department of Personnel sent to Bryson expressing concerns about corrections officers continually being worked "out of classification," and the fact that Personnel had not received requests to fill vacancies.

"[Personnel deputy director Linda Thomas] has advised you on several occasions that you have made too many cuts to the staffing pattern in the CD in the past, resulting in insufficient coverage being given to pod configuration. This insufficient staff has resulted in increased overtime costs, a fact that you had at least verbally recognized to the Department of Personnel."

Chairman Carter said after the meeting that he was unsatisfied with the answers he was receiving.

"He was contradicting himself from the previous meeting as well as the current meetings," Carter said. "There was just some things where they did not tell us the full story. This is just the first of many parts we need to go through . I need to bring in Mr. Dotson, I need to bring in personnel,  I want to bring in Ms. [JoAnn] Williams with the Carpenter's Union [which represents corrections officers].  Everybody has a story to tell how this system has been weakened of a period of time."

Sam Dotson, the mayor's operations chief, will testify next week.

"Most of the things that we talked about today were things that were identified in the report," Dotson said. "I think that oversight has to be improved. We're actively trying to make improvements - new audit processes, new training, new hires all come together to make a better corrections system."

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