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As Campaign To Close The Workhouse Gains Support, Krewson Considers 'Repurposing' St. Louis Jail

Activists with the Close the Workhouse campaign call on Mayor Lyda Krewson to close down the jail as she arrives for a segment on St. Louis on the Air.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Activists with the Close the Workhouse campaign call on Mayor Lyda Krewson to close down the jail as she arrives for a segment on St. Louis on the Air.

What started out as a viral video exposing the poor conditions detainees were facing inside St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution — also known as the Workhouse — has turned into a three-year-long effort to shut it down. In 2017, activists and civil rights organizations Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders and Bail Project St. Louis began pursuing calls to action to close it. 

The facility largely houses people who have not been convicted of a crime and cannot afford bail. Conditions inside have reportedly included black mold, dangerously high and low temperatures, moldy food and “rats as big as cats.”

The city has since invested in renovating the facility, but this week, the Close the Workhouse campaign announced its relaunch with a newly updated report. And now, it has a new ally.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked to one of the campaign’s co-founders, Kayla Reed. They were joined by Mary Pat Carl, the lead homicide attorney under former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and a challenger to current Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner in August’s Democratic primary. Gardner is among elected officials who had previously pledged their support to the campaign.

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

“I think it’s necessary,” Carl said Friday. “I think you can still want to hold people accountable and look at the situation and say, ‘We can do better.’”

Reed reiterated that the conditions of the Workhouse are just a portion of why the group wants the facility shut down. 

“Beyond the conditions, we need to have a conversation about how we do pre-trial in this city, and if we did it properly, this facility wouldn’t be needed at all,” she said.

Following the segment with Reed and Carl, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson told Fenske that she had spoken to her cabinet about finding ways to repurpose the Workhouse.

But she did not endorse the campaign’s plan to close it by the end of 2020.

“We’re almost there now — we’ve got 232 people at MSI,” Krewson said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve worked very hard.”

Pressed by Fenske, Krewson said she was committed to eventually closing the Workhouse, but, “I want to make sure that we can detain the people who need to be detained.”

During the segment, a detainee from the workhouse called in to St. Louis on the Air. Jacob Joseph Horton said he’s been in and out of the MSI about 13 times over the past four years. 

“Though [the city has] invested a lot of money into this institution, it's all been wasted because the institution is in such disrepair that it really isn't livable anymore,” Horton said. 

“And we're not having access to the type of mental health services and medical services that we need. We don't have access to the public defender system as we should because they're backlogged with all their caseloads there. The entire system needs an overhaul.”


St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex HeuerEmily WoodburyEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.