ArchCity Defenders and the Close the Workhouse campaign have released a series of legal declarations and audio recordings from people incarcerated in St. Louis City’s jails, describing the “unsanitary and unsafe conditions” in both the City Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse.
“They don’t hand out hand sanitizer, we’ve only received one mask,” said a man who is currently jailed at the Workhouse. “There are (correction officers) coming in from the outside who are constantly not wearing masks. No one offers any soap, if you don’t have soap to wash your hands, you're just on your own. They’re not really putting in the effort to make sure any cells are clean, they don’t pass out cleaning supplies, they don’t even give us a broom, let alone a mop. We’re just sitting here rotting.”
All of the audio recordings can be found here on ArchCity Defenders’ SoundCloud channel. The playlist is entitled #DecarcerateSTL: Caged During COVID-19, Stories from the Inside.
While the Workhouse has a capacity of 1138, the number of people jailed there has steadily decreased to a population of 117 as a result of Close the Workhouse campaign’s efforts, community organizing, growing political pressure, ongoing litigation, community and Bail Project bailouts, and prosecutorial reforms, according to a statement from the campaign. The campaign argues that the diminished population in the Workhouse, combined with the dangers of COVID-19, presents a critical moment for the City of St. Louis to permanently shutter the jail that costs taxpayers $16 million annually.
“These accounts are deeply concerning,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “Every day, we are hearing from one set of people inside these jails who feel that their health, and very lives, are at great risk. At the same time, other concerned St. Louisans are asking what is being done to ensure that people are safe. City officials at every level need to think very hard about whether they are comfortable condemning a certain number of people in their jails to serious illness or, worse, death. The experts continue to warn us that that is a real possibility.”
On March 26, 17 medical and public health experts signed onto a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, authored by Dr. Fred Rottnek of St. Louis University School of Medicine. In requesting that the court order the release of individuals from jails across the state, Dr. Rottnek, formerly the medical director of the St. Louis County Jail, wrote that he and other signers “believe these institutions are unable to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for treating or preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
The letter also states that “the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to devastate the lives of both incarcerated individuals and jail personnel, and result in a medical emergency that could overwhelm Missouri’s medical infrastructure.” Among the signers were Dr. Laurie Punch, a trauma surgeon with BJC Healthcare, Dr. Christine Jacobs, Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine, and Dr. Jason Purnell, Health Equity Works Program Director at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and head of the newly-formed COVID-19 Regional Response Team.
Campaign organizers said that the Workhouse has long been known for “caging poor people and Black people pretrial in hellish and inhumane conditions (i.e. black mold, violent-unsafe, mice & rat infestation, mice feces in food, bug and roach infestation, snakes in showers, inadequate medical care).” A jail conditions lawsuit filed by ArchCity Defenders in November 2017, Cody vs. City of St. Louis Case No. 4:17-CV-2707-AGF., is currently pending.
In late March, ArchCity Defenders set-up a jail hotline number to learn about jail conditions from people incarcerated and their loved ones on the outside. Individuals directly impacted are encouraged to call and leave a message at: (314) 643-8773.
In April, ArchCity Defenders launched a series on social media entitled #DecarcerateSTL, featuring voices of people incarcerated in the City jails, as well as second-hand accounts shared by their loved ones on the outside. Click the links below to view those:
Legal declarations for these individuals can be found in a zipped folder here.
To hear first-hand accounts of people who have spent time in the Workhouse, click here to see Close the Workhouse’s series “Humans of the Workhouse”.