How to close the Workhouse

Action St. Louis co-founder Kayla Reed laid out a plan for closing the Workhouse.

Photo by Chuck Ramsay

On Tuesday, January 14, the organizers of the Close the Workhouse campaign held a press conference showcasing their new report “Close the Workhouse: A Plan and a Vision.” This report showcases the dramatic drop in St. Louis city jail populations over the past year and proposes a two-year path to closing the workhouse and re-allocating the money that keeps it operating to social services programs.

Dozens of advocates and politicians gathered at City Hall to announce both the release of the report and a resolution submitted to the Board of Aldermen by Aldermen Cara Spencer, Dan Guenther, and Jesse Todd that, if passed, would re-appropriate the $16 million that the city spends on upkeep of the jail, to go into effect in fiscal year 2021.

According to the coalition, if there were 10 fewer people in the St. Louis city carceral system than there are now, every single incarcerated person could be housed in the St. Louis City Justice Center downtown. There are currently 660 people incarcerated at the City Justice Center, per St. Louis Department of Corrections data, and 239 at the Workhouse. The Justice Center has a total capacity of 860, while the Workhouse was built to house 1,138 (meaning it is currently operating at 21 percent of capacity).

Michael Milton, St. Louis site manager for the Bail Project, said that redirecting that $16 million to social services would help ensure that more people have the support they need to avoid ending up in the court system.

“We wanted to help the city reimagine what public safety could look like and really double down on this invest-divest framework,” Milton said in an interview with the St. Louis American. “We’re talking about how we could re-invest the $16 million [per year] that have gone into the Workhouse and reinvest it in something that would actually help with the root causes of crime.”

Milton said the money could be invested in a pretrial services agency, such as those that currently exist in New York City and Washington, D.C. Pretrial services agencies collect information about recently arrested individuals and evaluates options – including pre-trial confinement, but also considering possibilities such as release on a defendant’s word that they will return and drug treatment programs – for the time between the individual’s arrest and trial. Currently, St. Louis has no pretrial services agency, meaning that the vast majority of those arrested here are automatically sent to jail until their trial, unless they are able to pay cash bail.

Inez Bordeaux, a Close the Workhouse organizer who spent six months in the Workhouse herself, said that the current moment comes as part of a long history of attempts to shut down the jail. “The Workhouse has existed in this city since 1853, and since 1854 people have been trying to close it.”

At press time, the Workhouse (also known as the St. Louis Medium Security Institution) housed 239 detainees. On average, over the past year, 99 percent of those in the Workhouse were detained there pre-trial, mostly for low-level charges, advocates claim.

“Over-policing and over-criminalization of poverty is what has allowed the Workhouse to thrive in this city,” Bordeaux said.

The new report details several options for re-allocating funds from the Workhouse to various city services, analyses potential budgetary savings through closing the jail down, and also provides plans for continued employment for current Workhouse employees if the facility were to close.

“We encourage everyone in this city, especially our elected officials, to read the report,” said Bordeaux. “We’ve done the work for you – all you have to do is follow our plan.”

Close the Workhouse is a collaborative campaign between the advocacy organization Action St. Louis, the cash bail abolitionist group The Bail Project, and the civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders. The group’s first research report was published in 2018 and focused primarily on conditions inside the jail, which included reports of chronic mistreatment by guards, chronic issues with mold, oppressive temperatures, and rat infestations.

This first report was produced after a group of inmates sued the jail over inhumane incarceration conditions in November 2017. Some plaintiffs in the lawsuit were involved in a wave of protest that previous summer, after a video of a man waving a white towel out the window of the Workhouse and screaming, “Help!” went viral and triggered public pressure around jail conditions.  

The man in that video, who later became one of the plaintiffs in the Workhouse conditions lawsuit, is now an organizer with Action St. Louis. Callion Barnes, who had been in and out of the Workhouse between 1992 and 2017, said in an interview with The St. Louis American that conditions in the jail did not meaningfully change during his times there over two decades.

“It hasn’t changed from ‘92 to now,” Barnes said. “No hot water, no cold water in the summer, rats big as cats. And the mold issue has always been there.”

Now, Barnes said that he has found his “purpose” in spreading the word about closing the Workhouse. 

“A lot of us, including myself, are not afraid anymore to speak,” he said. “At first, I’m not going to lie, I was a little skeptical. I was afraid of backlash, of retaliation by officers out there on the street. But I’m not afraid anymore, because it’s not just about me anymore.”

However, there is a contingent that suggests that the Workhouse has been renovated enough that closing it would not be necessary. Mayor Lyda Krewson, as recently as November 2019, tweeted a report saying that the jail’s conditions are “clean,” “transformed,” and “professionally run,” as reported in The Riverfront Times.

Kayla Reed, lead organizer with Action St. Louis, hopes the facility can be closed within this year.

“Our hope is that this year we’re able to see the Board of Alderman move to close the facility –taking action to close it and sell it, and the creation of a fund that is the line item amount of the Workhouse. Each year we can move through participatory processes in the city and vote on how that money is spent on crime prevention, social services, and so on.”

Towards that end, Aldermen Guenther, Spencer and Todd have submitted Resolution 205 to the Board of Aldermen. At press time, they said that seven aldermen have come out in support of the resolution out of the 15 required to pass it. While the resolution itself will not change the law, it could, if passed, show broad legislative support for reallocating the Workhouse budget.

Then, Reed said, the city can move on to using its resources differently. “The goal of the campaign,” she said, “was never just to close the jail and walk away.”

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