Close the Workhouse

Dear Alderpersons,

In light of the recent spate of violent killings in the City of St. Louis, we urge you to reject the arrest-and-incarcerate status quo of public safety that continues to fail vulnerable communities of color. The daily violence that has devastated families and neighborhoods across our city is neither a random spike in social deviance, nor—as some have suggested—a function of inadequate cooperation with local police. It is a result of decades of economic disinvestment, political neglect, and oppressive state violence, including the unyielding seizure and caging of young black men in a dehumanizing criminal legal system.

We are hardly the first to note this troubling pattern, nor are we the only ones to protest it now. In recent days, we saw yet another column from Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tony Messenger titled “Want to help cure violence in St. Louis? Close the Workhouse.” The next day, Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones rightly stated that “The Rex/Krewson approach to public safety doesn’t work.” Last month, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner released a policy memo that declared, “Our over-reliance on incarceration is not making us safer” and it “is time to take a new approach that no longer relies on incarceration as the default solution.”

We were hopeful when we heard the news of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s change of heart in favor of emergency funding for the Cure Violence program that this might be the beginning of a new, holistic approach to public safety. Unfortunately, if this week’s reporting is accurate, she, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, and Police Chief John Hayden have since come before many of you to tout a plan rooted in doubling down on police and surveillance in communities impacted by violence. (And, of course, offering $25,000 rewards for information from the mayor’s favorite billionaire supporter.)

Our communities need investment. They need support and services. They need opportunity. And that could be made possible in part through reallocation of the $16 million currently being spent every year on a decrepit Workhouse jail that precisely no one needs. Nor do we need a newer, shinier version.

When we last wrote to you in March, there were 863 people being held in both city jails on city charges. Today, there are 707 people. The city Justice Center has a capacity of 860 people. You may recall that the mayor’s chief of staff at the time had a lot of words about the “complexities and nuances” standing in the way of basic math. What is the excuse now?

This is not a trivial or symbolic issue. Our communities are crying out for freedom and resources. The Workhouse steals both. The money we are spending on the Workhouse to disastrous effect can be used to fully fund effective violence prevention programs like Cure Violence; to help establish community health, education, and employment centers; to fund youth programs; to support community-based pretrial services; and much, much more.

Months ago, Comptroller Darlene Green wrote that closing the Workhouse “is the right thing to do” and that it can be done quickly. It was true then, and it is true now. Lives literally depend on getting this right. Which side of history will you be on?

It is time to combat violence by reinvesting in our communities. It is time to close the Workhouse.

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