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St. Louis Aldermen Endorse Close The Workhouse Plan

The majority of people housed at the Medium Security Institution in St. Louis do not have air conditioning. (July 19, 2017)
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Friday gave unanimous first-round approval to a bill that would force the city to shutter the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse by the end of the year.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is overwhelmingly on record as supporting a plan to close the north city jail known as the Workhouse.

A bill requiring the development of that plan received first-round approval Friday without any opposition. It still needs one more vote and the signature of Mayor Lyda Krewson to take effect.

However, the level of support is a major victory for activists who have been pushing to shutter the building for years.

“This is something that I think the establishment, and I mean myself too, was not necessarily in favor of when concerned citizens became activated to tell us we need to shut down this particular building,” said Alderman Bret Narayn, D-24th Ward. “There are so many organizations that became supportive over time of this, and it’s a true testament to what can happen when the citizenry gets involved.”

If the legislation is signed, Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass would have 45 days from that date to come up with a plan to close the facility by Dec. 31. The Workhouse can hold 436 people but as of Friday had 90. Separate legislation would redirect the $8 million in the current budget toward crime reduction.

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, who's running for mayor, said she was one of the people who were persuaded by advocacy groups.

“I wasn’t always in favor of closing the Workhouse,” she said. “They educated me. I listened to that work, and I’m glad that by virtue of the strong coalition we have supporting this now, we have all come on board.”

She added that she would like to see aldermen keep an open mind on other big issues in the future.

While no board member voted against the legislation, some made it clear they did not think closing the Workhouse was a good idea. Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, said she was concerned about the inmates who would simply be moved from the Workhouse to the Criminal Justice Center downtown. Inmates housed there, she said, have more restrictions on their movements.

“To be locked up for 20 hours, 21, 22, 23 hours, that is not in the best interest of prisoners to me.”

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, agreed.

“When we all start getting calls about how horrible we just treated everybody, and we start talking about how bad the conditions are in the Justice Center, we are the ones who are voting to move people into a much worse position,” he said. “When things go real south on us, I can at least say, we did this because it was the political thing to do, possibly not the right thing in my heart.”

Surveillance plane

Aldermen on Friday also approved a resolution asking Krewson and the police department to explore the use of surveillance by air and other methods to fight crime.

The most common example of such a system is in Baltimore, which authorized a pilot program of a plane that circled the city taking photographs and storing the data. Supporters say it gives police another tool to solve crimes in which witnesses may be unwilling to come forward. Opponents say it gives a private company access to a large amount of data on citizens in the name of public safety.

Krewson met with Ross McNutt, the founder of the company at work in Baltimore, last year.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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