Jailbreak Timeline: Suspended Correction Commissioner's Memos Warned of Jails' Vulnerability for Months
It's easy to understand why Division of Corrections Commissioner Gene Stubblefield wants the public to know his side of the story. Mayor Francis Slay's operations director Sam Dotson suspended him on September 16 in large part because of the recent escapes at the Medium Security Institution (called the "Workhouse") and the St. Louis City Justice Center.
Image via "We have a major public safety responsibility and jails can become a dangerous place to live and work without an appropriate managerial staffing pattern," Stubblefield told Bryson in April.
However a packet of emails and memos released by the office of Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed shows that Stubblefield had consistently warned Department of Public Safety Director Charles Bryson, his direct boss, that the elimination of several management positions, as well as the perceived incompetence of Bryson himself, compromised the jails' security.
Accordingly, the Board of Aldermen are expected to take up a resolution to hold a hearing to determine who should be held accountable for the string of four jailbreaks in fifteen months. The Stubblefield memos help form the timeline of significant events that led up to this point.
On June 23, 2010, Eric Gray, charged with murder, and Kurt Wallace, charged with assault, escaped from the Workhouse after they flooded the toilet in their cell and the correctional officer watching them went on a bathroom break. (They would be captured later that day.) In response, the facility welded their gates shut and added a second razor wire fence. Two correctional officers were placed on forced leave. Stubblefield told St. Louis Public Radio that it was possible the inmates had help from the inside.
But according to a memo Stubblefield sent Bryson a month later, the Department of Public Safety's investigation into the escape "had been suspended since shortly after the incident" and was never completed. He wrote that an investigation was necessary because he suspected the facility had structural problems.
"[T]here is evidence from my personal observations while providing Administrative oversight of the day-to-day operations of the facility that suggests that there is a systematic break down of the enforcement of policies and procedures on the 'third shift' by Corrections Officers and Supervisors," he wrote, adding, "I must reiterate my concern that an investigation into a serious breach of security has either been canceled or postponed to the detriment of the Division."
In November, Budget Director Paul Payne sent a memo asking department heads to "maintain vacancies for all positions that are non-critical to City operations." Bryson kept vacant several management posts in the corrections division, in addition to the two management positions and around twenty correctional officer positions that had been eliminated for the 2010 fiscal year. To compensate for the mid-level vacancies, Stubblefield had to move lower level employees into supervisor roles.
Two months later, the Director of Personnel Richard Frank wrote in a memo to Bryson, "The Department of Personnel is very concerned about Corrections employees being worked out of their classifications."
On February 8, 2011, Stubblefield told Bryson that he was concerned about the managerial staff reductions because they forced him to "use senior ranking correctional officers in acting managerial roles to shore up that lack of middle manager positions to provide direct supervision of facility operations and security functions." Stubblefield believed that his division was missing important positions, such as a Detention Center Superintendent at the Workhouse, which "is critical to the success of the [Medium Security Institution] operation to maintain standards within divisional policy."
His concern appeared to grow urgent by April 4, after Bryson directed him to eliminate a few management positions at the Justice Center, including one of the two Detention Center Superintendent positions and two Correctional Unit Manager positions which, Bryson wrote in an email, "are vacant (and have been for some time), it does not appear they are necessary over there."
"I want to be able to understand your rationale particular[ly] for eliminating unit managers which would essentially eliminate supervision over the housing areas and the admissions and release area at the justice center which is a massive responsibility. Also, this would mean the elimination of managers to supervise and coordinate security for both facilities (currently there is not a chief of security at either facility). [T]he unit manager positions were left vacant not because they were not needed, I was told that I could not fill them until recently."
And then he prophetically concluded: "I am concern[ed] because corrections has los[t] numerous managers and supervisors over the years due to budget cuts. We have a major public safety responsibility and jails can become a dangerous place to live and work without an appropriate managerial staffing pattern. Please advise."
Ten days later, after seeing Bryson's recommendations to the Budget Department, Stubblefield once again warned him that critical positions were being cut.
"Your recommendation to reduce or amend the Division staffing pattern... will impose serious restrictions on the Division's ability to provide the managerial oversight that is expected," Stubblefield wrote. "I want to be clear that all three Detention Center Superintendents are critical to our operations at both facilities and there is a direct relationship between these positions in the safety and security of staff, inmates and the general public."
There were three detention center superintendents at the Justice Center in the 2008 fiscal year. One position was cut in 2009 and another one was cut in 2010. The single detention center superintendent position at the Workhouse was left vacant "for quite some time" during the 2011 fiscal year.
In the same April 14 memo, Stubblefield proposed ways to reduce the corrections division's budget without cutting key positions.
"I am suggesting that if this small net gain is necessary, the same is accomplished by eliminating the Correctional Program Manager position and not adding the additional Training Coordinator to the budget," he wrote. "The elimination of these positions through a process of operational priorities certainly has less of an impact that the elimination of a Detention Center Superintendent and a Unit Manager, who are critical in the Divisional management strategy."
He added that the deep cuts in correctional officer staff were fiscally counterproductive because many of the jobs had to be filled through time-and-a-half overtime work. In 2011, corrections spent $2 million in overtime payments.
Eight days after Stubblefield sent this memo, Vernon Collins and David White, both in jail for assault, crawled through an access panel in the ceiling of the infirmity, broke through a window, and used bedsheets to climb down the wall of the Justice Center (they would be captured later that day). A guard named Mori Farrell hadn't made the proper cell checks. He was suspended and charged with a total of seven felony counts, including permitting escape, forgery and falsifying records.
The Carpenter's Union, which represents corrections officers, blamed the escape on staffing shortages, saying that 23 positions had been vacant for over a year. The guards, the union suggested, were overworked and given unrealistic responsibilities. Stubblefield, however, did not publicly air his grievances at the time, instead telling KMOX, "There is no connection between shortage of staff and the break out."
Stubblefield's relationship with Bryson seemed to be openly deteriorating by the summer. In a July 25 memo regarding an apparently contentious meeting the week before, Stubblefield wrote, "You usually make your decisions before you have the facts to make, in my opinion, a professional, fair and informed decision."
Three days later, Allen Brown Jr., locked up for a drugs and gun charge, walked through an open gate in the Workhouse and jumped a fence (he would be captured the next day).
On September 16, Stubblefield was placed on forced leave.
"The employees are basically good and the facilities are basically sound," Dotson, the operations director, told the Post-Dispatch, "But what was missing was a firm commitment to make sure the rules and procedures are followed."