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St. Louis' 'Close The Workhouse' Campaign Gears Up To Close The Deal

Workhouse protest, July 2017
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

In 2018, a powerhouse trio of nonprofits and activist groups set off on an unlikely quest: They wanted to close the city’s notorious Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse. ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis and the Bail Project argued that the fraught racial history of the city jail and its hellish conditions meant that St. Louis was better off without it, moving all of its detainees to the Justice Center downtown.

After two years of advocacy, the Close the Workhouse campaign believed its goal was finally within its grasp. Organizers announced they had a majority of the members of the Board of Aldermen on board for an amendment to strip the Workhouse funding from the city’s upcoming budget.   

But the amendment never made it to a vote. Instead, the budget went into effect last week with funding for the Workhouse and without a vote from the Board of Aldermen, much less an up-or-down vote on the Workhouse funding within it. 

“The truth is that we ran up against the clock,” said Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, referring to the June 30 deadline for passage of the city’s budget. 

But if the activists lost the battle, they may have won the war: That same day, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed announced he was introducing a bill of his own — one that would close the Workhouse within six months.

Kayla Reed, of Action St. Louis, said Monday on St. Louis on the Air that the group has offered nearly a dozen amendments to President Reed’s bill. (The two Reeds are not related.) But she believes the aldermanic president’s office is amenable to those changes. 

“I’ve probably read it 100 times,” she said of Reed’s Board Bill 92. “And what I will say is that it does speak to a lot of what the campaign over the last two years has been lifting up — that the call to close the Workhouse is not just simply about closing the facility. It is a conversation about pre-trial detention at large. It is a conversation about how we think about detainee populations in the city of St. Louis and how we spend our money in the carceral system here locally. 

“But it also has always set up a conversation about reinvesting in community. The model has been about ‘close the Workhouse, and invest that $16 million into community.’ And at its bones, and overall, this bill gets to that.”


Lewis Reed’s bill will need a two-thirds vote of the Board of Aldermen in order to become law. Kayla Reed noted that such a majority would make the legislation veto-proof — which would allow it to pass without the mayor’s support.

The mayor’s office has long defended the Workhouse as necessary to house detainees even as it’s continued to reduce the population within it. 

In a statement Sunday, her spokesperson said: “Mayor Lyda Krewson has made it very clear. She does not support putting dangerous criminals back on the streets. But she does support a comprehensive, safe, and deliberate evaluation and study of more potentially efficient uses of government resources. In fact, Mayor Krewson is on record saying the City is already working toward rethinking its correctional facilities that could possibly include operating only a single facility. But in order to get there, Mayor Krewson has a duty to ensure the City responsibly balances the safety of the community at large with all of its many obligations, under the law, to house detainees on serious and violent felony charges. Just arbitrarily setting dates and deadlines for closing MSI without taking all of this into account does not get us a safer St. Louis."

Kayla Reed said she is now hopeful the Workhouse will be closed by year’s end, with or without the mayor’s support. 

She noted that Lewis Reed’s bill is slated for a Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday, and she and her fellow activists plan to be there to make sure that their proposed amendments are a part of it and that the bill makes it out of the committee and to the full floor. 

“This isn’t anything President Reed alone can pass,” she said. 

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 Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.