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St. Louis Public Safety Leaders Plan To Improve Jail Food

Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center gather around the third floor window on April 4, 2021. Inmates appeared to throw objects out of the windows and start a fire
Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center gather around a third-floor window during an uprising on April 4. City leaders say they hope the changes will address concerns and complaints from inmates.

St. Louis officials say steps to address complaints about conditions at the St. Louis Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution known as the Workhouse are underway, including hiring a new food service provider at the Justice Center.

The city has requested proposals from food service contractors, said Interim Public Safety Director Daniel Isom.

“We certainly had complaints about the quality of food, and we want to address that,” Isom said. “One of the issues is that the food is prepared at the Justice Center, and then delivered to MSI. And so you might imagine, that is a logistically pretty challenging effort.”

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said she plans to close the Workhouse by July. Isom said many detainees complained that food was often cold when it was delivered to inmates at the Workhouse. He said closing the Workhouse and moving many of its inmates to the Justice Center should also provide quicker access to fresher food.

“When you close MSI and you’re at one facility, it’s going to make that process a lot easier,” Isom said. “It’s one of the big reasons why we all believe that closing MSI is the best for all concerned. Managing one operation at one site with one food preparation is going to make things a lot better in the future.”

Isom said if the city does contract with other jails within a 50-mile radius of the city to house more inmates, those facilities will have food preparation within that building.

Isom also said changes to the city’s civilian oversight board will allow members to look into more complaints. Jones signed an executive order last month that allows board members to have access to complaints against police and correctional officers.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23 Ward, who chairs the board’s public safety committee, said that while he doesn’t support closing the Workhouse, an independent oversight board with access to complaints is necessary to inspect the jails.

“All these things need to be brought to attention, we don't need to have them break out windows to tell us there's a problem,” Vaccaro said. “This would hopefully help with complaints.”

Vaccaro expressed concern about closing the Workhouse, especially for detainees who are moved to facilities farther away from the city without immediate access to see their attorneys or family. Isom said city officials set the 50-mile radius so visitors won’t have to travel farther.

Other public safety officials said more jail improvements are in the works, such as fixing the locks of Justice Center cells. Inmates escaped from their cells during several uprisings over the past six months. Heather Taylor, a senior adviser to Isom, said there are plans to overhaul floors of the Justice Center and to ensure the locks are repaired.

“Right now what we have is a problem,” Taylor said. “We have to continue to implement changes, you know, one at a time, this is not going to happen overnight, the decision to finally close MSI didn't happen overnight.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.