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Close The Workhouse Campaign Claims Victory, Though Funding For Jail Remains In Budget

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
Close the Workhouse organizer Inez Bordeaux, shown here in January, is calling a legislative effort to shutter the jail a victory.

Activists who have been pushing for years to close the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse say they are thrilled that the Board of Aldermen may finally take action.

“It’s definitely a huge victory,” said Inez Bordeaux, manager of community collaborations at ArchCity Defenders and an organizer with Close the Workhouse. “But it is still only the first of many, many steps that have to come afterward in order to achieve the true goals of this campaign, which is not just closing the jail but re-envisioning public safety through investing in people and the communities that need it most.”

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed announced on social media Monday that he would be introducing legislation this week outlining a plan to eventually close the jail, which is officially called the Medium Security Institution. 

Details of the plan were not immediately available. ArchCity Executive Director Blake Strode said he understood it borrowed heavily from the campaign’s ideas, such as retraining guards at the Workhouse for other city jobs and asking for citizen input on how to spend the money previously directed toward the jail.

Bordeaux said she was furious Reed announced his plan just after a Board of Aldermen meeting Monday in which he chose not to allow debate on the budget but brought forward a controversial bill calling for a public vote on leasing St. Louis-Lambert Airport. 

“It took me about 10 minutes to realize that, ‘OK, Inez, calm down a little bit because the Workhouse is going to be closed,’” she said. 

The coalition had been lobbying aldermen to remove the remaining $8 million from the Workhouse. Leaders suspended debate on an amendment to do so June 26, although it was unclear whether the coalition had the votes to pass it in the first place.

Alderman Joe Vollmer, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said that by Monday, it was too late for such an amendment to be added to the budget even if it had enough support. The board’s rules, he said, require a three-day wait between amending a bill and voting to send it to the mayor. For any bill amended on Monday, that would have been July 3 — past the start of the fiscal year.

Vollmer, D-10th Ward, added that he was for closing the Workhouse “in a businesslike and tidy fashion” — a sentiment shared by his colleague Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward.

“I’m supportive of that agenda, but how do we get there in a responsible way where public safety is still the No. 1 one goal?” Boyd said.

2021 budget

For the first time in nearly 30 years, aldermen did not take a final vote on the budget, instead allowing a spending plan approved June 17 by Reed, Mayor Lyda Krewson and Comptroller Darlene Green to take effect Wednesday. Together, the three elected officials are known as the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and play a major role in crafting the city’s appropriations.

The $1.1 billion spending plan includes $8 million for the Workhouse, which as of June 30 held 92 inmates in a space constructed for 436. It also includes funding known as ward capital that aldermen can direct to projects like sidewalks, and $860,000 for Cops and Clinicians, which will cover the cost of pairing social workers with officers in two police districts. There is also funding for police body and dashboard cameras.

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