Blake Strode

In case you missed it, the City of St. Louis’ infamous Workhouse jail is nearly closed already. You just keep paying for it.

Last week, St. Louis Budget Director Paul Payne made his annual presentation to the Board of Estimate & Apportionment with a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. If there is one theme of this budget, it is “cuts,” a devastating reality brought on by the viral pandemic.

Perversely, the COVID-19 outbreak has exponentially increased the need for robust public and social services at the same time that it has drastically reduced the economic means to provide those services. Hard budget choices across the country, and the world, are a reflection of this new normal.

But for a city left searching for change between the sofa cushions, there remains one particularly curious choice in the proposed budget: $8.8 million for the Medium Security Institution, better known as the Workhouse.

Let’s start with the good news.

Last year’s general fund budget for the city, following the trend from prior years, allocated $16.3 million to operate the Workhouse. From that baseline, the proposed $7.5 million budget reduction is significant and deserves a moment of pause and acknowledgment of the sustained collective effort that has brought us to this moment.

Payne was right to highlight the Workhouse as a source of much-needed savings and to finally start putting the city’s money where its mouth is. But we should not, and cannot, stop there.

There is a scene in the movie “Happy Gilmore” – stick with me, here – in which Happy (Adam Sandler) picks a fight with his pro-am partner, Bob Barker of “The Price is Right” fame. As things get heated, Happy asks, “You want a piece of me?”

Barker responds, “I don’t want a piece of you. I want the whole thing!” He proceeds to “lay hands,” so to speak, floral golf shirt and all. (YouTube it at https://tinyurl.com/y7e6gaqe; it’s 25 seconds well spent.)

When it comes to the Workhouse, we should demand nothing less than the whole thing. There are three simple reasons why.

First, the Workhouse jail population is at a historic low, which means that every person detained in the city could fit into the City Justice Center with room to spare.

The Workhouse is a jail built to house nearly 1,200 detainees. At the time of this writing, there are 111 people detained in it. Given this population level, the current budget proposal calls for allocating more than $79,000 annually per detainee. This would be an absurdly irresponsible use of funds under any circumstance; it is even more so when you consider that the city operates a second jail, the City Justice Center, with capacity to spare.

The Justice Center holds 860 detainees, and currently has 609 people detained in it. Between the Justice Center and Workhouse combined, there are 720 total people jailed in the City of St. Louis, only 504 of whom are jailed on city and state charges (after accounting for federal detainees that the city is not required to house). Solving the problem of the Workhouse is as simple as doing the math.

Second, the jail population is still too high.

The decreased numbers of people in St. Louis’ jails are not and should not be a temporary phenomenon. It is the result of years of organizing, activism, litigation, bailouts, and policy reforms, all of which have led to a sustained reduction. Since the Close the Workhouse campaign released its first report in September of 2018, we have seen a steady decline in the city’s total jail population, with a 44 percent decrease overall. In that span, the Workhouse population has declined by 80 percent. This shows that the Workhouse is not needed in this region, nor is any replacement.

What we do need is an ongoing commitment to do better. There are still far too many people in our jails who would be outside of cages living their lives if only they had enough money to pay for their freedom. These are mothers and fathers; sisters and brothers; caretakers and co-workers. The health and stability of our communities depends on the continued decarceration of St. Louis.

Third, we can improve our region by putting the funds to much better use.

From the beginning, the efforts to close the Workhouse have been about ending the period of mass incarceration and inhumane treatment of marginalized people in St. Louis and instead re-envisioning public safety as community well-being. In the midst of this global health crisis, it is clearer than ever that we need to correct our longstanding structural inequities. We need to put our resources toward equal access to healthcare, jobs, education, childcare, community-based crisis interventions, public spaces, and more. The money saved by defunding the Workhouse cannot fund all of that, but it is a good start.

For these reasons and many others, Mayor Lyda Krewson and President of the Board Lewis Reed should join Comptroller Darlene Green in the call she made one year ago to close the Workhouse. If they do not, the Board of Aldermen must use its budget authority to do so.

The Workhouse has been a stain on the City of St. Louis and the St. Louis region for far too long. It has deepened and exacerbated the suffering of those already surviving the hardships of poverty. It has devastated entire swaths of the black community in St. Louis, particularly hard-hit neighborhoods in North City and, increasingly, North County. It has become synonymous with the hellish and inhumane conditions that thousands have been forced to endure.

We have the opportunity to close its doors for good. We should do so. Now.

Blake Strode is executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a civil rights law firm in St. Louis, which is a member of the Close the Workhouse campaign.

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