ST. LOUIS – Before the dramatic riots at the St. Louis Justice Center, it was the St. Louis County jail facing a constant crisis. Much seemed to change with a new county director who took over about a year ago.
At the time, Doug Burris had come out of retirement as a chief U.S. probation officer to take on the county jail that was in chaos.
He said at that time he “… feared for both the employees and for the residents of the facility and that’s why I came back.”
Now one year later, he says his job here is done.
Officer Melba Patton told him, “I’m so concerned about you leaving.”
Burris answered her, “There’s too much good going on to let it die.”
Patton then told Fox 2, “I’m concerned that Mr. Burris is leaving and that things may change drastically.”
Patton said Burris brought leadership and presence to the near 300 employees. She added that she hadn’t seen that in her previous 13 years at the jail.
“Never,” she said. “I’ve never had a director – I’ve never had a director that I’ve talked to as much as I talk to Mr. Burris – his feet are on the ground.”
Burris calls the corrections officers heroes. He calls the inmates, clients.
“I came here to try to give some of the detainees second chances, but I’ve learned some of them never had a first. And it’s really important to show them mercy and give them opportunity and most of them will take advantage of that and not end up back here,” he said.
He took us into the laundry room where seven women were doing the laundry of a thousand others.
He told us about detainee Grace, who’s been here more than three years awaiting trial on a serious charge – “…who’s redeemed herself for the last three years,” Burris said, “without a single issue. Who’s been frankly a peacekeeper in the jail – where she’s made the jail safer.”
He wrote a letter to the judge on her behalf. He showed it to her today — and she cried.
“I can’t even hug you can I?” She asked, “Yes, you can,” he answered.
Grace told us, “It was very inspiring, very hopeful – to know you have people inside this jail that are showing the same amount of respect and love – give you that much more hope, because we’re not just looked at as a number or an inmate. We’re looked at as an individual.”
Burris said, “Sadly some of these people have been awaiting trial for up to six years and they’ve been in a jail in which they’ve not been able to go outside, hug a loved one, feel the sun on their face, for up to six years and that’s really shameful. This jail is designed to hold no one for more than a year.”
Because of partnerships and collaboration, he believes the improved jail culture will stick after he leaves in about a month. Officers hope so.
Officer Mario Reed said, “I want it to, you know because this is the first time that you had a director who actually paid attention to his staff – the officers.”
He continued, “Everybody’s got to be on the same page. It doesn’t just start with one man – everybody else gotta follow.”