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St. Louis Corrections Chief Raises Concerns About Closing The Workhouse

The image is a screenshot from a virtual meeting of the city's Public Safety committee. There are seven people in the panel.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
A screenshot of Thursday's virtual Public Safety committee meeting shows aldermen listening to corrections commissioner Dale Glass present a report on plans to close the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse.

The head of St. Louis’ corrections department is warning that closing the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse could cause overcrowding at the city’s other jail downtown.

Aldermen voted unanimously in July to require Dale Glass, the corrections commissioner, to stop operating the Workhouse as a jail by Dec. 31. While the second facility, officially called the Criminal Justice Center, has the beds to hold all 816 people currently beyond bars, Glass told the city’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday that being that close to capacity violates best practices.

“You hear a lot of times that we should be able to hold 860 people,” Glass said. “That’s how many beds we have in this building. But all the beds are not used by detainees.”

Some, he said, are needed for people being held on warrants from other locations or who have been arrested but not officially charged. When those factors are taken into consideration, Glass said, actual capacity at the jail is closer to 780.

“And that’s when you lose the ability to provide programs — you can only provide basic services,” he said.

To meet requirements that certain inmates are kept separate from each other, he said, some would have to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Having enough staff to be able to offer programs requires an inmate population that’s closer to 665. In order to meet that threshold, Glass said, detainees might have to be sent to jails outside of St. Louis. Of 131 jails he contacted, Glass said, only those of Miller County, near the Lake of the Ozarks, and St. Francois County expressed any interest, and it would cost the city at least $45 per person per day.

Nearly 90% of the city’s jail inmates are Black, and Alderwoman Pam Boyd, D-27th Ward, worried about the quality of services they would get in more rural places.

“Our prisoners are not going to be treated like the prisoners are up here,” she said. “And so people need to look at that because at the end of the day, it’s racial issues that’s going on and a lot of time those people suffer from that.”

While the vote in July to close the Workhouse was unanimous, many aldermen were skeptical that it could be done safely. Glass’ presentation to the committee, as well as public reports posted on the city’s website, gave ammunition to those skeptics.

“We knew some of these concerns were in place,” said Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard, D-5th Ward. “I think it’s important for us to maintain the quality of service that we offer to our offenders, and it’s kind of sad when many people don’t understand what we provide and how we go above and beyond to treat them fairly.”

The architects of the Close the Workhouse campaign say fewer people should be in jail anyway and have fought to have the savings from closing the Workhouse directed toward social service programs. But as the corrections commissioner, Glass said, he has no control over how many people are in jail.

“There are some things on the horizon that concern me,” he said. “One thing is the COVID-19 impact. I’m concerned about a reversal of that issue in terms of the population ticking back up a little bit. I also have to take into consideration things like the Missouri crime bill, Operation Legend, Operation Safe Streets.”

The deadline to close the Workhouse is Dec. 31. Aldermen could introduce legislation changing that date, but it’s not clear how much support there would be for doing so.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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