ST. LOUIS – Changes are underway in jails across the St. Louis region following a killer’s daring escape in Pennsylvania. That killer is now back in custody after a near two-week manhunt, while detention centers here are immediately asking if it can happen here.
We began inside the St. Charles County Department of Corrections in an area similar to where the Pennsylvania convict escaped.
“It’s called our urban yard,” Corrections Director Dan Keen said. “We start out with the worst-case scenario. That’s where we have to think all the time and work our way backwards. So, something just like this—the rec yard—coming in here as a security lieutenant or the director of corrections and saying, ‘How can I get out of here?’”
They may ask themselves, ‘Can someone pull themselves up on a window or something hanging from the walls?’ Maybe. That’s why officers need to make sure the mesh ceiling is secured.
“We are in their business,” Keen said.
Like an inmate who was buying a ton of toothpaste from the commissary.
“…Exploring a little bit deeper, he was actually digging out the mortar between the bricks inside his cell, and then he was using the toothpaste to fill in the cracks,” Keen said.
So they changed the color of the toothpaste sold inside.
At the St. Ann Jail, three inmates were able to kick out a tempered glass window in 2021. The criminals knew it would make a lot of noise, so timing was everything, according to St. Ann Police Lt. Monica Ruelas.
“There was a lot of thunder that night,” she said. “They were using that to their advantage to kick the windows when there was a lot of noise.”
Those windows are now covered up with brick on the inside and all the inmates were captured the same day.
“Thanks to the U.S. Marshals for being able to come in on such short notice,” she said.
Ruelas says they’ve learned how to combat an inmate’s best weapon: time.
“They have 24 hours in a day to observe; how many officers are in a building? What the officers are doing? What time they’re coming in to check. So, we have to be better.”
That means proper staffing and even having police officers walk through the jail.
“Including our command staff,” she said. “Our command staff will go back there, introduce themselves, speak to the federal inmates, and make their presence known.”
Ruelas and Keen, at two different jails, both agree that people are as crucial as the security tools and walls.
“You have to have awesome staffing—staffing that buys into the organization, and it’s important for them… It’s a tough job, corrections is a tough job, and being able to let them know, we appreciate them,” Keen said.
Specific to the crab walk the Pennsylvania inmate did, there’s no jail that doesn’t have areas like that you can potentially climb; the key is, what’s up above? Jailers tell me that’s what has to be addressed—securing areas above rather than changing the spacing of any walls.
The toothpaste trick was also used inside the St. Louis Justice Center in July 2021. Two inmates were charged in an incident where part of a cell wall was dug out and replaced with toothpaste and toilet paper. The two men did not escape and were criminally charged for their attempt.