CLAYTON, Mo. – There’s a new director in charge of the St. Louis County Justice Center who took FOX 2 inside for an exclusive look.
The housing units consist of two floors of cells and two people to each room. Mario Reed, a 19-year veteran detention officer, showed us how the locking systems worked. We asked him about their functioning since controversy at the city jail exposed frequent failures to lock.
“Oh, the doors lock. We do door checks regularly, so we make sure the locks are alright,” he said.
The county jail has the same locking system but Reed said they’re not having the same problems.
The county has had its share of controversy with five deaths in 2019. Officer Reed said things are different under new director Doug Burris.
“I think the old way of we’re here just to take control and be corrective and to not give hope or opportunity or even dignity, that’s going away,” he said.
Burris came out of retirement from his previous job as Chief US Probation Officer for Eastern Missouri. It took him a minute into our tour to correct me when I asked about “inmates”.
“I actually prefer the term ‘resident’, because the majority of the people here—of the thousand people here—we have two or three that are serving a sentence,” he said. “The rest are awaiting trial.”
The residents notice.
“(The words) offender, inmate, make people think the worst of you, which ain’t always the situation,” Adam Morgan said.
We spoke with Morgan in the kitchen, where they volunteer to work under Burris’ new program.
“This is great medicine for the mind, keeps your mind busy, a lot of time,” resident Jeffery Friso said. “All this is idle time.”
Burris believes in helping residents grow rather than constraining them, like Joshua Ross Davis, who’s renewed his love of singing.
Burris said he will write a defendant’s judge to report good behavior as much as he will report offenses. He showed us one letter that even called out a former corrections officer.
“The letter you’re referring to was a (resident) who became a prolific reader and he was studying for his GED and he had too many books in his cell and received a write-up for that,” he said. “And when I wrote the judge about it, I said that was one of the more silly write-ups I’d ever seen and that we should encourage that type of behavior.”
Burris said he won’t tolerate that behavior from officers, adding, “We’re here to help these people. We’re not here to hinder their advancing.”
You can see everything happening from one spot in the housing unit, like the recreation room where they were playing handball the phone bank to call families and lawyers. We also noticed a lot of chess playing.
“(Chess) teaches people to think three and four steps ahead, which is what we want them to do when they get out of here,” Burris said.
Burris credited the idea of a regular chess tournament to his veteran Deputy Director Darby Howard.
Burris often passed on credit to others in corrections. It’s something that people like Officer Reed notice. Reed said he even has had ideas that Burris has implemented.
“He would ask the janitor, ‘How can I make this place better?’ It’s so easy to be a boss but not listen to anybody. He doesn’t do that. He listens,” Reed said.
FOX 2 also asked St. Louis leaders for the same access to the St. Louis Justice Center. Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office told responded, “Not at this time.”