After 18 months, St. Louis jail oversight board members get access to the building
More than 18 months after they were appointed, some members of the St. Louis Detention Facilities Oversight Board finally gained access to the city’s jail.
Mayor Tishaura Jones appointed the nine members of the Detention Facilities Oversight Board in 2022, but legal battles and a failure to complete required training meant the board could not access the downtown City Justice Center until now.
Three members — its chairman, the Rev. Darryl Gray; former city Health Director Pam Walker; and Ornetha Lewis-Walls — spent about 50 minutes inside the jail on Tuesday, mostly in conversation with Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Clemens-Abdullah. Other members had not yet completed the required training and were not allowed in.
The three originally asked to see the medical and kitchen facilities, as well as to speak with corrections officers and detainees, Gray said. They were not afforded that opportunity.
“But I think that this visit might have been a bit more promising,” he said. “We had an opportunity to visit with the commissioner of corrections, and to have a heart-to-heart, face-to-face.”
The group was able to extract a promise that its staff would have access to the jail to investigate submitted complaints, which Gray called the “No. 1 thing” he took from the meeting. Second on the list, he said, was a chance to make it clear that the oversight board and the commissioner can work together to improve conditions at the jail.
“We’re not advocates. We’re board members,” he said. “We have been forced to take an advocacy role, because we haven't had access.”
Clemens-Abdullah left the building shortly after the meeting without commenting to reporters. A spokesperson for the city's Public Safety department also did not respond to a request for comment.
The meeting came less than two weeks after the St. Louis Board of Aldermen made changes to the law creating the Detention Facilities Oversight Board, including consolidating and reducing the required training, making it easier for the board to get its own independent legal opinion and making it clearer when an oversight board investigation would be considered “interference” with other legal matters.
Gray said he believed that legislation may have “shaken loose” the visit. It passed the board 12-0 and is on the mayor’s desk awaiting her signature. Under city law, it will take effect even if she does not sign it.