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What’s the Workhouse? Here’s what you need to know about St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution

People inside the Workhouse look out as protesters face off with St. Louis police officers. July 21, 2017.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Inmates at the Workhouse in St. Louis.

St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, has been the target of protests and lawsuits for years, including for its lack of air conditioning during the recent record-breaking heat.

While the city brought in temporary air conditioning units Monday, providing what city engineers said would be the ability to “sustain a temperature of 78 degrees inside the dorms,” the events sparked several questions. Here are some important facts about the Workhouse and the regulations it must adhere to.

When was the structure built?


How many inmates can it hold?


How many people are housed in there currently?

836 people as of July 3.

Why is it called the Workhouse?

The name dates to 1843. The city’s ordinance at the time said those committed to a similar institution would work off a fine or forfeiture before he or she could be released. In the early 1900s, the Workhouse was on St. Louis’ south side and inmates worked in nearby quarries, according to the St. Louis Public Library.

Who runs the Workhouse?

Because St. Louis is a city in its own county, the city’s Public Safety Department maintains St. Louis two jails —  the Workhouse and the City Justice Center.

Who is housed at the Workhouse?

There were 836 inmates at the Workhouse on July 3, according to the city’s Department of Public Safety. All but a few were awaiting trial; the most common charges were unlawful use of a weapon (175), probation violations (163) and possession of a controlled substance (117).

The city submits monthly reports for the combined population of inmates at the Workhouse and the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis. In June, 13 inmates were state prisoners who already have been sentenced.

How much does the city get for housing state prisoners?
The state of Missouri pays county jails $21.08 daily per inmate to house state prisoners.

Lamya Orr tries to greet a friend who is inside the Workhouse while standing outside the gate with his children and their mother.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lamya Orr tries to greet a friend who is inside the Workhouse while standing outside the gate with his children and their mother.

What are the minimum heating, cooling and living standards for prisons and jails in Missouri?

Several states have policies for temperature control in jails and prisons, but Missouri does not. There are no federal standards for jails, except for a national law to prevent sexual assault.   

All inmates in Missouri prisons must be treated in a “reasonable and humane manner,” according to state statute, which also requires facilities to assure the “health, condition and safekeeping” of inmates and reports findings to the director of the state Department of Corrections.

But state code doesn’t provide specific regulations for heating and cooling. Eleven state prisons are fully equipped with air conditioning; 11 have partial air conditioning in some units. During periods of excessive heat, state prisons follow procedures to limit physical activity, provide ice and place fans in areas that aren’t air-conditioned.

Most county jails in Missouri are overseen by a county sheriff. The Missouri Sheriff’s Association has a set of core jail standards, available here, that requires giving inmates “adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care and personal safety.” Heating and cooling requirements are not specified, aside from a subsection about emergency preparedness, which says a facility must have “the equipment necessary to maintain heating and cooling, essential lights, power and communications in an emergency to the best of the facility’s ability.”

Before the temporary air-conditioning units were placed at the Workhouse, St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass told St. Louis Public Radio guards and inmates had access to water, Gatorade and ice; cooling stations were available, and inmates were rotated into air-conditioned areas, such as the law library and dining hall.

Will the state of Missouri seek changes to its guidelines?

That is unclear. Ongoing court cases may affect all prisons and jails across the United States when it comes to heating and cooling guidelines.

Last week, a federal judge in Texas ordered state officials to come up with a plan to lower the temperature inside a prison in the southeast Texas town of Rosharon, where there is no air conditioning in cell blocks. Twenty-two inmates have died of heat stroke in Texas prisons since 1998, theAssociated Press reported

Has anyone at the Workhouse been treated for medical issues stemming from excessive heat or cold?

Individual medical records are not publicly available, and information on how many people have been treated in the past decade for heat- or cold-related medical issues was not immediately available from the city or the state.

According to the city’s Division of Corrections census report for June 2017, there were 752 requests for medical or mental health treatment in St. Louis’ two jails; 740 were granted. Twenty-nine people had to be taken to a hospital in June, but the report does not specify the reasons for their treatment, or whether the injury or illness occurred while they were incarcerated.

The city has not reported any deaths at the Workhouse this summer. A 34-year-old woman was found dead in her cell last year in an apparent suicide, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann contributed to this report.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB