The Workhouse

Inmates of St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, otherwise known as the Workhouse, rallied from the inside along with citizens protesting their being detained pre-trial in a jail without air conditioning on Friday, July 21, 2017.

Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, came to St. Louis on Wednesday, June 12 to promote the company’s national campaign — to Close the Workhouse and transform the criminal justice system. And Cohen arrived in St. Louis just as the advocates learned of a major victory in their federal court case to end cash bail.

Cohen and his massive team have gotten behind the local St. Louis advocates who are trying to close the Medium Security Institute, known as the Workhouse, that has long been decried for inhumane conditions. And Ben & Jerry’s is also supporting the end of the “debtors’ prison” system that forces poor, nonviolent offenders to stay in the Workhouse because they can’t afford bail.

“The word ‘horrible’ is not forceful enough for what I understand is going on there and what’s going on across our country in terms of racial justice,” Cohen told The St. Louis American in a phone interview on June 11. “You want to use your resources and skills to where people are hurting the most. We are drawn to the situation down there.”

In September 2018, the Close the Workhouse campaign issued a 42-page report that provides statistics about the overwhelming black and poor population in the jail and also includes first-hand accounts from inmates. The campaign calls for the immediate closure of the Workhouse, a reduced incarcerated population and overall reform to public safety. The report also made direct calls to action to the mayor, circuit attorney and Board of Aldermen.

Aldermen are currently working to finalize the city’s annual budget by June 28, and activists are calling on them to defund the Workhouse.

“It’s a human rights embarrassment,” said Blake Strode, executive director of the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders. “Our city’s budget is tightly restrained, yet we continue to spend $16 million a year on an inhumane jail, which we could close tomorrow if we wanted to. There’s no good excuse.”

The Close the Workhouse campaign is made up of four local advocacy groups: Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, the Bail Project and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (M.O.R.E.).

Cohen said that most local groups are stretched for time and resources. Ben & Jerry’s has its PR and Social Mission departments — about a dozen people — working on the national tour and campaign.

“That doesn’t include the people who are running the ice cream truck,” he said. The fully-painted truck has an advertisement for the upcoming flavor “Justice Remix’d” and the words, “Let’s transform the criminal justice system so it serves everyone.” The truck gave out free scoops of Phish Food before the Phish show on June 11 and 12 at the Chaifetz Arena, as part of the Close the Workhouse tour. Another dozen people from the marketing, social media and video departments are also on putting energy into this, he said.

“You think about it: corporations have these huge departments and gobs and gobs of people dedicated to selling product,” Cohen said. “But the people who are doing the most important work — the social justice, racial equity, environmental — are so underfunded and under-resourced.”

The Advancement Project is also a partner in the tour.

Ending cash bail victory

On Tuesday, June 11, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the City of St. Louis to give a fair bail hearing to every person arrested within 48 hours of their arrest, and a hearing within one week to all those who are currently being held in jail awaiting trial. At these hearings, the 22nd Circuit Court must consider the person’s ability to pay.

“What this means for St. Louis residents is that they no longer face sitting in jail for as many as 291 days just because they can’t make bail,” according to a statement from the groups who brought forth the case, including ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

The injunction also grants class certification status, expanding the plaintiffs beyond the four people who originally challenged the constitutionality of the city’s cash bail system.

“At this very moment, there are hundreds of people detained in the City of St. Louis merely because of their poverty,” Strode said.

“Today’s decision to grant a preliminary injunction is a critical first step in ending the current status quo of wealth-based detention. We are encouraged that the judge recognized the enormous human cost of the unconstitutional cash bail scheme in the city’s courts, and we are hopeful that this change in St. Louis’ pretrial detention policies will spare countless people unnecessary suffering now and in the future.”

Advocates said the ruling confirms that the city has violated the rights of “countless thousands” of people, who have been detained before trial at one of the city’s two jails — the Justice Center and the Workhouse — solely because they are unable to pay money bail.

In January 2019, the advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional the cash bail system in St. Louis, brought on behalf of four individuals who were denied fair bail hearings.

Advocates said the experiences of the four plaintiffs — David Dixon, Aaron Thurman, Jeffrey Rozelle and Richard Robards — shed light on how St. Louis’ cash bail scheme renders poor residents powerless in court and condemns them to suffer the hellish conditions of the Workhouse, a local jail with a long history of abusive behavior by guards and inadequate medical care.

“The city has operated this racist and predatory scheme for decades and cavalierly destroyed the lives of countless thousands of people, disproportionately impacted black people, and not made St. Louis safer,” said Thomas B. Harvey, justice project director and senior staff attorney at the Advancement Project National Office. “This is the first step in ending wealth-based pretrial detention and closing the Workhouse permanently.”

A link to the original lawsuit can be found here. A link to the preliminary injunction can be found here.

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