A St. Louis city jail is reportedly now tracking overdoses among incarcerated people, after local media forced its hand. But it still hasn’t pubicly disclosed how many people have overdosed, fatally or not, in its custody, amid an ongoing battle for transparency and accountability.
The St. Louis City Justice Center (CJC) confirmed on November 28 that it would begin tracking the figures, according to local outlet FOX 2 News, which reported that it spent five weeks trying to get an answer. The decision came on the same day that a civilian oversight board toured the jail.
According to the city, the CJC, which opened in 2002, is a “state of the art” six-story building with capacity to hold 860 people. It is now the only large jail facility in the city, after the notorious Medium Security Institution—known as “the Workhouse”—was closed in 2021. Persistent abuses and poor conditions at the Workhouse sparked a local protest movement to force elected officials to shut it down. But now the newer, larger Justice Center is the focus of similar concerns.
“The irony is you had detainees who said candidly, ‘Send us back to the Workhouse.'”
Current conflict centers on the role of an independent jail oversight board, and how its work is being obstructed. Mayor Tishaura Jones (D) created the board in 2022 as part of a Department of Civilian Oversight, which includes a separate group to investigate complaints against police officers.
The Detention Facilities Oversight Board is made up of nine civilian members—empowered to access all information and data related to the jail, and to speak with jail staff and officers as well as detainees. The board also has subpoena power, meaning it can legally compel someone to testify in an investigation.
Board Chair Reverend Darryl Gray told Filter that the CJC has seen a crisis of overcrowding, with staff numbers simultaneously falling, since the Workhouse shut down.
“The closing of the Workhouse basically eliminated the ability for the CJC to have that flexibility and not have detainees on top of each other,” Gray said. “That inflexibility contributed to the riots that we saw [in 2021]. The irony is you had detainees who said candidly, ‘Send us back to the Workhouse. The conditions may have been deplorable, but at least we had space, we were not on top of each other.’”
On October 12, Missouri State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick announced he would be investigating several issues at the CJC, including poor management, nonpayment to vendors resulting in a shortage of food, and poor medical care. Fitzpatrick also alleged that the jail is failing to respond to the oversight board’s requests.
But since the oversight board began its work last year, it has faced barriers to investigating and collecting evidence.
“This is just another example of how this detention facility oversight continues to be treated with total disregard.”
Mayor Jones has insisted that all board members must have 40 hours of training before they can access the jail, which has prevented visits. And in September, Vice Chair Janis Mensah was handcuffed, detained and charged with trespass and resisting arrest, after showing up to the jail and demanding that officials answer for deaths in custody.
“This is just another example of how this detention facility oversight continues to be treated with total disregard,” Rev. Gray told KMOV4 in September. Board members have called for Clemons-Abdullah to step down. “She can stop us from going inside the facility to see things with our own eyes, and she can very clearly stop people under her care from telling us what is going on,” Mensah told KMOV4. The mayor maintains she has “full confidence” in the commissioner.
FOX 2 News reportedly asked Mayor Jones, Commissioner Clemons-Abdullah, and the Department of Public Safety for more information and numbers regarding overdoses in the jail, but did not get an answer. Only after reaching the St. Louis Fire Department did it learn that EMS answered eight overdose calls between October 15 and November 15.
When the jail finally announced it would begin tracking overdoses, it told FOX 2 News that its health contractor is monitoring whenever naloxone is used—but still did not provide numbers.
“It was staggering, her comment—that you have inmates entrusted in her care and you cannot tell for the record how many of those have overdosed.”
“The commissioner would not respond to the oversight board’s inquiries, but she responded to the media,” Rev. Gray told Filter. “One of the questions was the alarming amount of overdose, what are the numbers? The commissioner in that interview stated she did not have the numbers. It was staggering, her comment—that you have inmates entrusted in her care and you cannot tell for the record how many of those have overdosed.”
Gray hopes the oversight board can work out an agreement with the city’s Department of Public Safety to achieve more transparency at the jail. If that fails, the board always has subpoena power—but he stressed that will be a last resort.
The two parties are due to meet in the coming days.
“In that meeting we will request a site visit, and an agenda that we will determine,” Gray said. “It will include meeting with detainees, corrections officers, administrative staff and medical staff. We will ask the director that we meet on a quarterly basis and meet with the commissioner of corrections to look at these medical numbers and numbers that relate to drugs—not just overdose but any case where drugs are a factor. And not just asking for the data, but asking what has been the response.”
Photograph of City Justice Center via government of St. Louis