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St. Louis County jail workers worry about safety and want better pay and more staff

The St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton.
Sarah Fentem / File Photo
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton is the site of two recent assaults against corrections officers.

Members of the St. Louis County Council heard dire pleas Tuesday from corrections officers at the St. Louis County Justice Center for better pay and more staffing.

“I’m terrified. I’m terrified to step into one of those pods, because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come out there and go back home to my family,” said Martha Wheat, a corrections officer at the Justice Center.

The often emotional testimony came after a male inmate attacked a female corrections officer earlier this month. Several speakers at the council meeting noted that employees at the Clayton jail are often offered less money than at surrounding county jails — or private companies.

“I’ve been working with the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services for 33 years. I’ve given my life to that department,” said Deputy Justice Services Director Darby Howard. “In my 33 years, I sat through a riot in 1991, a flood in 1992. And ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you what the climate in the jail is right now — that climate is the worst that I’ve seen during that riot or during that flood.”

Speakers implored the council to increase pay for corrections officers to attract more applicants — potentially with federal American Rescue Plan funds. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a $2-an-hour increasewould raise the starting salary from $36,847 to $40,997.

“To stay current with other jails ... $2-an-hour increase is needed,” said Acting Justice Services Director Scott Anders. “I was just at Culver’s restaurant. And the sign on their counter said $17 an hour. IKEA’s paying $19 an hour, plus college tuition. We’re asking staff to go into an environment where two-thirds of the residents now are there for violent crimes rather than ordinance violation for municipalities as it’s been in the past.”

Jeff Smith, the chairman of the Justice Services Board, said increasing the size of the staff could cut down on overtime, which in turn could make pay increases sustainable.

“I beg you to hear the powerful voices we heard today and act as quickly as you possibly can,” Smith said. “I again reiterate: The people here today were not here out of greed. They were here because they want applicants to be drawn here so they have a safer work environment.”

Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, chairwoman of the committee that oversees the Justice Center, said she’ll hold a hearing on Thursday to discuss the issue further. One proposal that could move forward is providing employees with a $2-an-hour pay increase, which could be an alternative to a measure passed earlier in the year to provide one-time bonuses to new hires and current employees.

Anders told councilmembers that bonus plans won't meet American Rescue Plan guidelines. But he added that the plan would have only amounted to a $1-an-hour raise, which he said would not keep pace with jails in other counties.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.