Campaign to Close the Workhouse

Blake Strode of ArchCity Defenders holds up the Close the Workhouse campaign’s report during a panel discussion at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being on Thursday, March 7. Joining him on the panel were St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, Michael Milton of the Bail Project, St. Louis Public Defender Mary Fox and (not pictured) Kayla Reed of Action STL.

Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

Below are two emails sent out to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen this past week, exactly as they appeared. The first is from Steve Conway, the mayor’s chief of staff, who wrote a letter in response to the Close the Workhouse public forum held on March 7 at the Deaconess Foundation. The second letter to the aldermen is from the leaders of the Close the Workhouse campaign, which is comprised of Action STL, ArchCity Defenders, The Bail Project and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment. The panelists at the forum were Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, District Defender Mary Fox, Blake Strode, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders, and Michael Milton with the Bail Project. It was moderated by Kayla Reed of Action STL.

March 13, 2019

Dear Alderperson,

In light of the recent “Close the Workhouse” public forum and the news coverage that has followed, I want to provide some information regarding the two City jails, the Criminal Justice Center (CJC) and the Medium Security Institution (MSI). 

Mayor Krewson does not think nonviolent offenders, who pose no threat to public safety, should languish in City jails. Reducing our jail population, while maintaining public safety, has been a priority for the Krewson Administration for the last two years.

Through the combined efforts of Mayor Krewson, Judge Jimmie Edwards, judges, prosecutors, the Corrections Division, the Police Department, and state probation & parole personnel, the City’s average daily jail population has fallen from 1,328 two years ago, to 1,126 this year.

Today, there are 1,080 detainees in our City jails —1,065 are confined on felony offenses, only 13 are confined on misdemeanors, and two are confined on ordinance violations. The felony offenders include 217 detainees being held on federal charges, some of whom would likely be held on state charges if they had not been charged in the federal system.

That said, the City cannot simply close MSI. The jail has a capacity of 1,138; CJC has a capacity of 860, bringing the City’s total capacity to 1,998. As of Tuesday morning, there were 362 people confined at MSI and 718 people at CJC for a total of 1,080.

Some argue that the City could close MSI and move its inmate population to CJC. This may appear possible based on raw numbers, however, it is important to understand the complexities and nuances involved.

There are Division of Corrections standards and regulations which must be followed. Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass often says, “10 beds doesn’t equal 10 people.” For example, best practices and regulations require that women, relatives, and co-defendants be separated.

A unit at CJC consists of approximately 60 beds, a unit in the MSI pods is 50 beds. Therefore, it requires two units to house the 70 women currently in custody.

MSI consists of the old section, built 60 years ago and the newer pods, built around 30 years ago. The City has already closed some residential areas of the old section, and will close more areas as is possible and practical.

As you know, we are addressing the issue of our jail population on several fronts.

We have played the role of convener over the past two years, bringing judges, prosecutors and state probation and parole officials together to determine if reducing the jail population is possible without jeopardizing public safety. We also have two FUSE Executive Fellows, one working on finding alternatives to cash bail, the other working to establish a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass regularly works with the Bail Project to identify individuals who are good candidates for bonding out of jail.

Additionally, the City won a $50,000 Safety and Justice Challenge grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which includes a collaboration with Stanford University to establish data analytics surrounding our criminal justice system to provide information which will help us make the best decisions possible.

I hope this answers some of the questions that have been raised publicly around this issue. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me to discuss this further.

Thank you,

Stephen J. Conway, Chief of Staff

City of St. Louis

March 15, 2019

Dear Alderpersons,

We understand that you received the email copied below from Mayor Lyda Krewson’s Chief of Staff. We are heartened by the Mayor’s desire to engage in public dialogue on this important subject. In fact, we feel that it is long overdue. We would like to take this opportunity to respond to some of the representations made by the Mayor’s office, and to offer our own view as to why the Workhouse should be closed immediately.

The email states, “Mayor Krewson does not think nonviolent offenders, who pose no threat to public safety, should languish in City jails.” We agree. But Mayor Krewson’s staffer then goes on to say that “there are 1,080 detainees in our City jails.” Is the Mayor’s office suggesting that all 1,080 of those individuals are “violent offenders”? There are several problems with this implication.

First, according to the numbers presented by the Mayor’s office, “13 are confined on misdemeanors, and two are confined on ordinance violations.” Surely we can agree that these are not “violent offenders.” Second, the email is silent on the nature of the 1,065 felony offenses with which the other detainees are charged. This is likely meant to make you assume that “felony” equals “violent.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There are five degrees of felonies which cover a wide range of offenses, including many nonviolent. Third, some are simply awaiting probation revocation hearings, after which many will be released without any finding of wrongdoing. Last, and most importantly, the vast majority of these (and nearly all in the Workhouse) are charges, not convictions. Accordingly, these detainees are in jail on cash bail that they can’t afford. If these people were rich, they would be free. They are poor, so they remain in jail. That is wrong, no matter what numbers and labels the Mayor’s office throws at you.

Much of the email from Mayor Krewson’s office is full of double-talk about who is where, whether “federal” actually means federal, and the “complexities and nuances” of whether “10 beds [equals] 10 people.” None of that changes a couple of simple facts. There are 863 people currently being held by the City on City charges. The CJC capacity is 860. (Please recall at this point that there are 15 people currently being held for misdemeanors and ordinance violations.) Unless you actually believe that rearranging beds in a pod would be so difficult that it justifies spending $16 million per year on a ruined, uninhabitable facility and continuing to cage people unnecessarily, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot or should not close the Workhouse NOW.

The “detainees” the Mayor’s office references are not numbers; they are human beings. They are almost all poor, and nearly 90% are black. You can’t talk about racial equity and continue to prop up this racist institution. People continue to suffer needlessly because of the City’s inaction. And we continue to waste millions of dollars every year because of the City’s inaction. There’s a very simple way to alleviate the suffering, invest in community, and improve public safety. If you are unclear how to do so, our report is a good start.

Last week, the City Public Defender Mary Fox and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner sat on a panel together and talked about the waste and human cost of pretrial detention. The Mayor should get on board. As should the Board of Aldermen. Close the Workhouse.

Thank you,

The Close the Workhouse Campaign

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