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St. Louis County Citizen Board Says Jail Needs To Be More Transparent

St. Louis County jail
File photo
The St. Louis County Justice Services Advisory Board said jail staff needs to be more transparent about an inmate's death in the jail in December.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 28

The St. Louis County Justice Services Board canceled its Thursday meeting with jail director Raul Banasco about the circumstances surrounding an inmate's death in late December.  

"Based upon some legal matters that surround the board -- as well as the death -- and access to information, I find it prudent that we reschedule the meeting to make sure we can get all of that documentation and all of those things we need to have a healthy, full-fledged meeting," said Rev. Phillip Duvall, the head of the justice services board, in an interview Tuesday. 

"It is in the best interest of the community and the board to vet these legal issues first," he said. 

He expects the rescheduled meeting to be held next week.

The advisory board is supposed to receive a report on any new jail death within 30 days of the incident. The deadline for that report passed Monday. 

Original story from Jan. 24 

St. Louis County’s recently revived justice services advisory board chastised jail officials Friday for being secretive about the circumstances surrounding the death of an inmate in late December.

“You guys seem to know what happened, and we do not know what happened,” said board member and jail ministry volunteer Mary Zabawa Taylor to jail director Raul Banasco and the county’s top medical officials at the group’s monthly meeting.

“If we are going to be transparent in the county, then we really need to be far more transparent about what’s going on,” she later added.

Boardmembers haven’t been able to get information from the jail about Jo’von Mitchell, who died Dec. 27.

Banasco agreed Friday to provide the board with a report on the jail’s response to Mitchell next week — but only after board members’ complaints about the lack of transparency and communication about the death.

County Executive Sam Page largely brought back the justice services advisory board — which had been basically inactive for years — because of the deaths of four other inmates earlier in 2019. The board doesn’t have authority over the jail staff, but was instructed to provide oversight of jail services, particularly those related to health care. 

On Friday, several board members — all appointed by Page in the last six months — said that they were going to have a hard time acting as any sort of watchdog organization if communication from the jail officials didn’t improve drastically. 

Washington University professor and board member Timothy McBride was unable to attend Friday’s meeting but in a letter read by the chairman, McBride complained that he hadn’t even been aware the jail had an internal report on Mitchell’s death until he read about it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Who are we? Just figureheads?” asked another board member, former state Sen. Jeff Smith, who was visibly frustrated.

Taylor said she had been surprised to discover Mitchell’s death was not on the board’s agenda this month, especially since she had asked for it to be added. Banasco, whose office controls the agenda, declined to say why any discussion of Mitchell’s death had been left off. 

In response to the criticism, Banasco told the board that he “takes these incidents very seriously” and had a lot of experience with jail deaths, after working for over 30 years in correctional facilities. “I’ve dealt with this before,” he said. 

Taylor and several other members of the board view Mitchell’s death with extra caution because he is the first inmate to die since the jail overhauled some of its internal protocol and attempted to make improvements to its medical care. 

His death is also the only one since the advisory board was reconfigured. Several board members said the death would serve as a case study to see what —if any — progress the jail had made in the last few months.

“We do need to see is if this [new jail] process was followed,” when Mitchell became sick, said board member Alexander Garza, who is also chief medical officer at SSM Health.

Banascois new to St. Louis County and was hired to usher in an era of accountability in justice services. He only took over at the facility two months ago. 

At Friday’s meeting, Banasco listed several changes to the jail he expects to make over the next few months. Every inmate is supposed to receive a tablet which will allow them to communicate when they are sick through a closed internet-like system later this year. 

The jail director is also having more cameras installed around the facility, which he said will help keep the jail staff “honest.” He’s held the first-ever swearing in ceremony for the jail’s new correctional officers, which he said will help boost the morale of the staff.

It’s not clear whether the report on Mitchell’s death the board will receive next week will be public. Taylor said she felt the board needed to be more transparent about jail operations and Mitchell’s death, but the jail has refused to release any information about the circumstances surrounding the previous four inmates dying.

Tashonda Troupe, whose son died in the jail of untreated leukemia last year, said she isn’t optimistic that information about Mitchell, her son or the other deceased inmates will be released.

“I don’t get a good vibe,” she said at the board meeting.

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Follow Julie on Twitter:@jsodonoghue