A detainee at St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse, has tested positive for COVID-19, according to city officials. A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson said this is the first instance of a city jail detainee testing positive for the deadly virus.
“The Division of Corrections took immediate, proactive measures to quarantine this individual and all others they came into contact with,” according to city communications director Jacob Long.
As of June 24, the Workhouse contains 92 detainees, mostly people who have not been convicted of a crime but are incarcerated because they cannot afford bail while they await trial.
City and health department representatives did not respond to phone call or email inquiries about how many of the 92 detainees have been tested for COVID-10 and how many are quarantined. Long did say the city “will continue to aggressively follow the recommended CDC guidelines for correctional facilities and has already begun providing additional testing opportunities for all detainees and staff.”
According to the carpenters union, which represents about half of the corrections officers at the Workhouse, the city’s Division of Corrections notified them of the detainee’s positive status and informed them that staff and detainees were being tested for the coronavirus. However, they do have concerns for their members.
“We have worked closely with the department to make sure that administrators are using every possible safety precaution for the welfare of our corrections officers and anyone they come into contact with while at work,” union representative Jeff Haantz said in a statement.
Earlier this month, 18 detainees and 14 staff at the Hogan Street Youth Center were tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services. Organizers and union officials called for the center to be shut down.
The news of a coronavirus infection at the Workhouse comes following a years-long Close the Workhouse campaign to shut down the notorious facility known for inhumane conditions. The majority of the people jailed at the Workhouse are poor and Black.
Close the Workhouse organizer Inez Bordeaux said the community knows of other COVID-19 cases at the Workhouse. She questions the city’s transparency in disclosing complete information about detainees.
“We know there is no way this is the first person to test positive inside of the Workhouse for coronavirus,” Bordeaux said. “So, we are saddened but not surprised. It’s impossible to social distance in jail.”
Bordeaux said a positive coronavirus test for a Workhouse detainee is a public health problem in a growing global health crisis.
“How many of those (92 detainees) are being held on nonviolent offenses where those people could be released to go home and that would help reduce the community spread in the city?” she asked.
The Close the Workhouse campaign has been gaining momentum from a renewed Black Lives Matter movement and public pledges of support from city Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones, Comptroller Darlene Green, and 14 of the city’s 28 Aldermen.
Ward 20 Alderman Cara Spencer said closing the Workhouse is also about practical and economic factors, in addition to containing the spread of the virus.
“I wouldn't point to the COVID case as necessarily to advocate closing the workhouse because people see closing the workhouse as ‘freeing all the prisoners.’” she said. “What is making it palatable to some of the aldermen is that we can close (the Workhouse) without doing that.”
The Close the Workhouse campaign has presented a comprehensive plan that provides both economic and practical solutions to closing the city jail:
Combine the city jail population into one facility. Both city jails are under-capacity because of a declining jail population. By moving the current 92 Workhouse detainees into the City Justice Center, which has a current population of 664, the total population would be 756. That would be well under the 860-capacity of the City Justice Center.
Stop housing federal detainees. The city is required by law to detain people charged by the state but not those with federal charges. There are currently 220 federal detainees in the city jails that can be housed in other jails.
Move resources out of the jails and into the community. Organizers say that the $8 million currently proposed in the 2020 city budget for the Workhouse can be used for mental and addiction healthcare, pretrial services, affordable housing, and economic and educational opportunities.
Spencer, who announced her candidacy for mayor in January, attempted earlier this month to introduce an amendment into the city budget that would defund the Workhouse.
“We have an amendment we prepared that would zero the budget for the Workhouse,” Spencer said. “I introduced it in committee last week and the Ways and Means Chair [Joe Vollmer] wouldn't even entertain an amendment.”
Spencer said that she will be re-introducing the budget amendment when it is discussed by the full board in an upcoming budget meeting.
For more information about the Close the Workhouse campaign, go to www.closetheworkhouse.org.