Author Robin D.G Kelley once said: “Without new visions, we don't know what to build, only what to knock down.” Two years ago, in the spring of 2018, a group of organizers came together to envision St. Louis without The Workhouse and create an organizing strategy to get us there. We wanted to build on the dreams of leaders and advocates who originally called for its closure in 2016. We wanted to build a city where our children would never have to see the inside of those cells. As the bill to close the Workhouse approaches a final vote, that dream is closer than ever.
Historically, The Workhouse was an inevitable stop in Black communities. It was known for its horrible conditions, violence, and consistent overcrowding. We knew it tore apart Black families and caused joblessness and housing instability—weakening our community and leading to additional trauma and violence. We knew that people would plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to avoid being incarcerated there, burdening them with criminal records for the rest of their lives. We knew that the defense of Black lives meant we had to close this jail and cast a new vision for St. Louis.
When the campaign to Close the Workhouse launched two years ago, over 98% of those detained at the jail were held pretrial, mostly because of cash bail. A full 86% of the jail population was Black, even though our community makes up less than 50% of St. Louis’ population. Since 2018, The Bail Project, a core member of the campaign, has provided free bail assistance for over 1,300 individuals in the Workhouse alone and more than 3,000 across the St. Louis region. Due to our bailouts efforts, civil litigation filed by ArchCity Defenders, grassroots organizing by Action St. Louis and Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s work to decrease mass incarceration, the Workhouse now holds less than 100 individuals and the reasons for closing it—from the human cost to the financial burden on taxpayers—could not be more evident.
But closing The Workhouse is only the beginning. This infamous jail is a symptom of systemic racism and our city’s failure to invest meaningfully in marginalized communities. Its imminent closure is a concrete victory to celebrate, but beyond the walls and steel, the systemic issues of poverty, institutional racism, and public health inequities, which drive so many of our community members into the criminal legal system, remain and must be addressed.
The campaign to close the Workhouse was never just a demand that our city stop criminalizing poverty and race and stop pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into a jail. It was and remains a call for investment in education, health, affordable housing, and employment opportunities for St. Louis’s most marginalized. Our detailed plan for how to reallocate funds provides a roadmap map for our city government to actually serve the needs of our community. The proposed bill takes a similar approach and includes provisions that would redistribute funds from the jail to hire social workers to help people with mental health needs and create resources in neighborhoods with high crime rates through a participatory budgeting process.
These are significant steps in the right direction, but to ensure their success we must also say never again to another jail. Not in our name. Not when we know that the real crime is our poverty rates, segregation, and relegating those most vulnerable to the margins of society.
The Bail Project’s clients in St. Louis provide a snapshot of the larger issues we are facing as a community: Nearly one-third of our clients shared they had a mental health diagnosis. Over one-third said they struggled with drug addiction. Over two-thirds of our clients in St. Louis are Black, many struggling with unstable housing, and lack of employment opportunities.
Policy changes are necessary to address these systemic issues but they will not be enough on their own. We must also come together and work to address inter-community harm. Community-led initiatives have the potential to truly demonstrate what is possible outside a carceral system. Initiatives like Cure Violence St Louis are designed to interrupt inter-community violence by helping de-escalate conflict and soon Faith For Justice, a faith-based advocacy group, will launch a Community Healing Fund to support survivors of violence and families with emergency financial resources to help them stay safe. We must keep envisioning new approaches that tap into our collective wisdom and solidarity, rather than the desire for retribution.
Closing the Workhouse could mark the beginning of a new kind of justice. Not the type that breaks individuals and communities through incarceration and over-policing, but a justice that restores the strength of our communities and builds mutual understanding, power, and resources to break cycles of trauma, violence, and poverty—a justice that is restorative and centered in transformation.
With The Workhouse era quickly coming to an end, we can begin casting this new vision, certain of what we must build in place of the systems we knock down.
Mike Milton is The Bail Project's Statewide Policy and Advocacy manager for Missouri, director of Development for Faith for Justice and a long-time community organizer.