Scott Anders joined the St. Louis County Department of Justice from federal probation. This past career taught him the importance of equipping people with the skills they need to re-enter society. A focus that he intends to maintain in his new position as acting head of the department.
“The majority of the people are being released back into the community,” he said. “It just confirms the importance” of giving inmates the tools they need to make informed decisions when they are released.
Anders recently spoke to St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Lippmann: You are the fourth director of the department in two years. How do you create a sense of stability?
Scott Anders: As we make changes, it is important that employees have the necessary training so that we can develop the leadership skills of employees and the management team. That helps us to keep qualified staff. The most recent raise helps us – we’ve lost staff to other prisons that pay more and to the private industry that offered signing bonuses.
I also think that some of the programs we are initiating with the community colleges and unions are important not only for the residents but also for the staff so they can see what we can make a difference.
Lippmann: Funding for this increase currently comes from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act – a one-time source of funds. How will you work to keep these increases going in future budgets?
Different: While we were understaffed, there was a lot of staff Having to work overtimewhich is very expensive. Just by hiring and retaining the necessary staff, we will be able to reduce our overtime costs and cover these costs. And as we become more efficient in scheduling and accessing grants, all of these things will help us cover the cost of that increase.
Lippmann: One of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement officers across the country has been the coronavirus pandemic. With the contagious Omicron variant, how do you prepare for a possible increase in cases?
Different: We were recently highlighted in a national magazine for having one of the lowest rates of infection in correctional facilities in the country – only 5% of our inmates tested positive for COVID-19. When people go to prison, they are kept separate. We continue to offer education. And the St. Louis County Health Department is also helping to get residents vaccinated and run adequate tests.
Lippmann: How do you manage to vaccinate inmates and those with whom they interact, especially law enforcement officers?
Different: Around two thirds of our employees are vaccinated, the rest are in weekly test. We make sure someone who tests positive doesn’t go to jail. We also ask contractors and volunteers to do the same.
Lippmann: The pandemic has left the courts behind as well, and that is leading to longer stays in prison. What difficulties did that cause you and your correctional officers to deal with the population?
Different: It was a challenge. Over the past year and a half the situation has moved to the point where around two thirds of the population are here for violent crimes, so it has definitely become a higher risk environment for staff.
At the same time, we looked at release plans for those who are less at risk but may not be able to set a bond or have no home plan. We have implemented a GPS program that will allow us to monitor this person’s location monitoring when the courts are ready. We also have a ministerial loyalty program that allows people to be released under the supervision of a mentor. We are looking for creative ways to handle this from both sides.
Lippmann: What was the cost to inmates of some of the measures that had to be taken to contain the pandemic?
Different: At the beginning of the pandemic, they couldn’t be out in groups for long at all. That limited the time they could spend on recreation. We were also limited to groups of 10 for programming. In the last few months, as our staff has become increasingly scarce, and as a result of two attacks on correctional officers, we had to completely suspend these programs.
But during this time we also introduced tablets that allow residents to access educational materials, videos and music, and to communicate with their families by phone and email. We have also implemented some video phone systems. Both of these resources will be very helpful when we start the educational programs.
Lippmann: What about the changes you promised to make afterwards? these attacks walk?
Different: It works well. The day after the second attack, we began to need two law enforcement officers in each cubicle when residents left their cells. As residents are detained here for more violent offenses, the presence of two officers in the capsule improves the officers’ safety. We also held defensive tactics training and are bringing in some experts to develop additional ongoing training.
We are also trying to reduce the amount of medication that enters the facility. We will be running training for employees to recognize when someone is under the influence of drugs or has a mental illness.
We approach this from different angles. This will be an ongoing process. We communicate with employees to make sure we understand their concerns and can address them as quickly as possible. Safety is our top priority now.
Lippmann: Will the raise be enough to bring staffing up to the point where programming can resume and you can have these two officers in a capsule when the inmates are not around?
Different: Definitely. In the few weeks since the raise, we’ve had one additional 20 Officer positions. We have a class of 10 new recruits that only started in mid-December and we conducted interviews last week and will soon have 13 additional officers. We conduct interviews every two weeks.
Lippmann: Negotiating St. Louis County’s politics can be a small minefield. How do you see your relationship with those ultimately responsible for securing the funding you need to run the Justice Department’s services the way you want them to be?
Different: We have excellent relationships and great support for the needs of the prison. I think it’s really important to let them know about our needs and the reasons behind them, and let them know about our progress in order to keep the momentum we have now.
Lippmann: How would you characterize your relationship with the Justice Service Advisory Board and how do you intend to contribute their expertise?
Different: We have an excellent advisory board. They are committed to ensuring that we have the resources to help us become the best prison not just in Missouri but in the country.
We have experts with experience in research, in social work, we have a former member of the advisory board and also community representatives. It is important that we continue to hear from them regarding their knowledge and experiences and use them to continue developing resources to achieve our goals that we have.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippenmann