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Activists Unveil Plan To Close St. Louis’ Workhouse Jail

Inez Bordeaux, an organizer with Close the Workhouse, present's the group's new report during a press conference at City Hall on Jan. 14, 2020.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Inez Bordeaux, an organizer with Close the Workhouse, presents the group's plan to close the north St. Louis jail by the end of the year at a press conference on Tuesday.

Four activist groups say they have found a way to close the St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse by the end of this year.

The Close the Workhouse campaign unveiled its plan on Tuesday. The groups behind it say their research shows all of the people accused of state crimes could be held safely at the downtown Criminal Justice Center.

“The Workhouse is a stain on the city of St. Louis,” said Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis. “For decades it has devastated families, causing economic burdens on people already struggling to make ends meet. Cash bail is a failed system, and the Workhouse is a failed institution.”

Their plan to shutter the Workhouse, officially called the Medium Security Institution, starts with St. Louis ending a contract with the federal government to hold detainees charged with federal crimes. Data from Jan. 11 show that 233 of the more than 900 total individuals housed in both the downtown jail and the Workhouse were federal defendants.

Without them, the city’s jail population as of Jan. 11 was 669 people. The vast majority of them are already housed at the downtown jail, which has a capacity of 860 people. 

“We are spending more than $16 million to detain 239 people in a facility where there are accounts of flooding, mold and rodents,” Reed said. “We are spending $16 million to detain people in the Workhouse, and the majority of those people are poor or working class and black.”

A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson disputed the numbers, saying, “the city does not currently have the capacity to close MSI based on our current detainee population, which includes almost exclusively individuals on serious felony charges that the state has deemed them necessary to be held.” 

The spokesman, Jacob Long, pointed to a grand jury report that called MSI “professionally run, clean and transformed” following $5.5 million in improvements.

Activists plan to push the city’s top elected officials — Krewson, Comptroller Darlene Green and Board President Lewis Reed — to strip the $16 million from the Department of Corrections budget. The three make up the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which drafts the city’s spending plan. 

Green supports the Close the Workhouse campaign. Lewis Reed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Also on board are Treasurer Tishaura Jones, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, and a primary challenger of Gardner’s in August, Mary Pat Carl, who used to be a prosecutor.

A resolution to be introduced this week for the Board of Aldermen to consider would specifically ask Estimate and Apportionment not to fund the Workhouse. Activists want that money directed toward more social services instead.

“The majority of the community says to invest the money into the community,” said Callion Barnes, a volunteer on the Close the Workhouse campaign who had spent nearly 20 years cycling in and out of jail. “They want resources such as jobs, health care and schools.”

Alderman Dan Guenther, D-9th Ward, said six other aldermen are in favor of the resolution, of which he’s the lead sponsor. Passage of anything by the board, including a budget without money for the Workhouse, requires 15 votes. 

Alderman Dan Guenther announced a resolution in support of defunding the Workhouse during a press conference at City Hall on Jan. 14, 2020.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Dan Guenther D-9th Ward, center, announces that a resolution supporting the Close the Workhouse campaign will be introduced at the Board of Aldermen this week.

“We’re confident we’ll be able to get the support we need,” Guenther said. 

He added that some colleagues wanted assurances that guards at the Workhouse would be retrained for the more than 700 vacant jobs in the city.

The resolution is just the first step, said Kayla Reed, with Action St. Louis.

“The campaign will not be stopping its efforts to increase the people who are aware of the campaign and the need to close the Workhouse so they may participate in what we call a democracy, and call other elected officials to support this initiative,” she said. “This is about the people of St. Louis.”


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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.