St. Louis City’s Medium Security Institution, infamously known as “the Workhouse,” has operated on Hall Street since 1966. It is no secret that there are problems with this institution.
In recent years, stories from the Workhouse – like guards forcing inmates to fight, black mold, freezing temperatures, broken security systems and other wretched conditions – have appeared in our newspapers. Unlike operations in state and federal correctional facilities, there are no laws governing mandated reporting of conditions at the Workhouse, which is run by the City of St. Louis Division of Corrections.
However, using interviews with current and former corrections officers and inmates, and data from records, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates have laid out a damning list of abuses, including sexual harassment, medical neglect, extended or mistaken incarceration, and negligence resulting in death.
Running the Workhouse costs taxpayers about $16 million a year – and that's to keep people in the Workhouse. I propose we close the Workhouse and use the same money to keep people out.
The city currently spends $254 million a year repeatedly arresting the same people, trying them, and incarcerating them. If we can reduce the number of people cycling through the system, we will save a lot of that money.
I believe that dangerous people should be in jail. But I do not believe that we should be spending money to brutalize young, sick or innocent people and make them a permanent part of our problem.
At any given time, one-fourth to one-third of the inmates at the Workhouse are people who are mentally ill, have substance abuse issues, or both. The city doesn’t operate its own programs for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled. There are organizations that do, though, and they do it well. The city needs to work in tandem with these organizations to fund and operate programs to create opportunities for residents.
And, where this is happening already, more people need to know about it so that they can support the programs and participate in them if needed. The Justice Policy Center has found that putting drug offenders in treatment programs instead of incarcerating them is a much better return on investment. I’d spend the Workhouse money there.
Mayor Francis G. Slay's initiative, the Prison to Prosperity Program – which matches mentors, formal education, skills training and jobs to young inmates nearing release – has kept almost all of its 100 or so participants out of further trouble. However, it has not been funded beyond its pilot program. I’d spend the Workhouse money there.
The chief judge in the city’s municipal court system, Gordon D. Schweitzer Jr., has introduced a variety of programs designed to keep people out of jail. Some of them – like allowing people to pay in amounts they can afford, little by little, instead of demanding the entire amount up front – don’t cost much money. But adding and training staff to do more could transform municipal court into a portal to city services instead of the front door to the Workhouse. I’d spend the Workhouse money there.
St. Louis has a new circuit attorney, Kimberly Gardner, who ran and won on a platform of increasing public accountability, addressing over-incarceration of low level non-violent offenders, and strengthening relationships with the criminal justice system. Gardner believes there is a problem, and I believe she can help fix it. In her new office, she will have the authority to gather information to identify why people are in the Workhouse and what is preventing those individuals from moving efficiently through the criminal justice system.
I formally demand that current problems in the Workhouse be thoroughly investigated and expeditiously addressed by the Circuit Attorney’s Office and the entire criminal justice system. With the support of all of us, the residents of St. Louis and their elected officials, we can do this. And after we do, I demand that the Workhouse be closed.
Tishaura O. Jones is treasurer for the City of St. Louis.