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St. Louis County jail makes changes after brutal assaults on corrections officers

St. Louis County jail
File photo / Nate Birt
The St. Louis County Jail is located in the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton.

After two recent assaults against corrections officers at the St. Louis County Justice Center, the acting director has changed jail policies amid big staffing shortages.

On Oct. 9, prosecutors say, an inmate at the jail brutally attacked corrections officer Pristina Hanning. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell on Tuesday charged Zahmeen Manuel with first-degree assault. Prosecutors said he wrapped his hands and arms around her neck and threatened to break her neck and kill her. (STLPR is naming the victim with her attorney’s permission.)

At the time of the attack, Hanning alone was responsible for more than 70 inmates.

“Following the assault of Pristina, we implemented a policy for roving officers on each floor to provide additional support,” explained Scott Anders, acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Justice Services. “And we do have unit managers that walk through routinely and do keylock searches and who are there to assist.”

But Hanning’s assault was followed by another inmate attack on a St. Louis County corrections officer last week. On Nov. 10, Christina Nieto was sitting at a desk at the justice center when, prosecutors say, an inmate struck her in the face multiple times in the face with a closed fist. Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell’s office filed a first-degree assault charge in that case too.

After last week’s attack, Anders locked down the jail for two days. On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, he acknowledged that both attacks were horrible assaults. He said he implemented more policy changes after meeting with Nieto’s family and listening to their concerns.

Anders, who’s been acting director since Oct. 1, said new procedures require two officers in each pod that holds 72 people.

In addition to staff shortages, he blamed pandemic conditions for increasing the risk of violence.

“The majority of court hearings were not being held,” Anders said. “The Department of Corrections and Bureau of Prisons were not taking people that were sentenced.” Beyond that, the inmate population at the jail is now a more dangerous one. Said Anders: “Law enforcement agencies were arresting violent crimes and not pursuing incarceration for other municipal ordinance type violations. So about two-thirds of the jail now is at higher risk.”

Listen: Attorney describes two brutal attacks on corrections officers

Requiring two officers per pod comes with challenges; the department is short-staffed by 80 officers, Anders said.

At last night’s St. Louis County Council meeting, corrections officers pleaded for better pay and more staffing. Anders said that he’s hopeful for a pay increase and that 50 people are scheduled for interviews later this week.

Also joining the program was St. Louis attorney Elad Gross. He represents Hanning and Nieto.

Gross described the horrific assaults his clients experienced. He said both officers are now resting at home, dealing with both the physical and mental fallout from being attacked.

Both want to see change in the justice center’s operations, he said.

“We're willing to work with the county on all these issues,” he said. “And I know people are like, ‘Oh, you’re a lawyer, you want to file a lawsuit.’ That is not something that we're always interested in doing if we can resolve the situation the right way. But if folks aren't going to step up and take responsibility for what they did and do the right thing, then yeah, absolutely. We'll see them in court.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.