Jae Shepherd

Jae Shepherd of Action St. Louis leads a Close the Workhouse campaign demonstration at St. Louis City Hall on June 17.

Several members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen debated last week for more than an hour regarding a bill introduced by Alderman Jeffrey Boyd that would put a question about closing the Workhouse on the April ballot. 

Boyd is vice chair of the board’s Public Safety Committee, which met by Zoom on Jan. 14 to discuss Board Bill 212. The bill would add a question to the April 6 general election ballot asking residents whether they think the city should close St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse. \

The vote would be nonbinding, meaning it acts more as a survey to gauge public opinion on the issue and does not require action from the government.

“We’ve heard for at least a year now different conversations about closing the Workhouse,” Boyd said. “I’m of the mindset the Workhouse belongs to the people and the people should have a voice when it comes to closing the Workhouse.”

Boyd represents Ward 22, which covers parts of the Hamilton Heights, Mark Twain I-70 Industrial, Wells Goodfellow and West End neighborhoods.

The Workhouse has operated on Hall Street near the Mississippi riverfront since 1966. The Close the Workhouse Campaign says the vast majority of people held at the Workhouse are awaiting trial and remain incarcerated due to their inability to pay a cash bail. 

The Board of Aldermen passed Board Bill 92 unanimously on July 17, which was based on a plan by the Close the Workhouse Campaign. The bill directed the Commissioner of Corrections to begin the process of closing the Workhouse by presenting a plan with a closure date set for no later than Dec.31.

The bill also established two funds of $7.6 million to address neighborhood safety and re-entry programs for inmates.

Regardless, the Workhouse has remained operational weeks after the deadline. In fact, 56 people were transferred from the Justice Center to the Workhouse on Dec. 29, followed by 45 on Jan. 1 after inmates refused to return to their cells in protest. 

The St. Louis Public Safety Committee is made up seven alder people: Boyd, Joseph Vaccaro, Tammika Hubbard, Carol Howard, John Collins-Muhammad, Shameem Clark Hubbard and Pam Boyd.

All seven supported the bill and they allowed non-committee alder people to also speak on the bill. 

Alderwomen Sharon Tyus and Marlene Davis joined the discussion to support the bill. Tyus especially drove home the idea of educating people about the issue, which she believes hasn’t been done to an acceptable extent.

Multiple committee members talked about the effect on inmates’ families, who would have to travel farther to visit their relatives if the Workhouse is closed. 

In December, Mayor Lyda Krewson said Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass was exploring the option of transferring 100 inmates from the workhouse to a jail in Kentucky, which is about a four-hour drive from St. Louis. 

Alderman Dan Guenther and Alderwoman Annie Rice spoke during the meeting in opposition of the bill.

Guenther, who represents the 9th Ward in south St. Louis, expressed concerns that the public did not have a chance to comment on the proposed bill and noted the previous bill to close the Workhouse was unanimously passed by the Board of Aldermen — so he sees no need for the ballot question. The 9th Ward includes  Benton Park, Soulard and other neighborhoods.

In response, Vaccaro, of Ward 23, said he didn’t think that public input would change the board’s vote, that the same oppositional activists would participate in public comment and so he did not find it necessary. Vaccaro’s ward includes the Lindenwood Park, North Hampton and Southampton neighborhoods.

Rice, of Ward 8, also pointed out that the Board had already taken up a vote on this issue, and went on to talk about what she saw as significant public engagement on this issue prior to Bill 92 being passed by organizations who are “100% Black.”

She argued that closing the Workhouse is not a matter of white people in the south side of the city telling what north side residents should do or want to do. Rice’s ward includes Shaw, Southwest Garden and Tower Grove East neighborhoods.

Later in the meeting, Tyus expressed how upset she was by Rice’s comments.

“You got these all-Black organizations, that don’t mean they can speak for me,” said Tyus, of Ward 1. Her ward covers parts of the Kingsway East, Kingsway West, Mark Twain, Mark Twain I-70 Industrial, Penrose and Wells Goodfellow neighborhoods.

Rice, who is white, apologized and said that was not her intention.

The committee voted 5-0 to bring it to the full board with a recommendation to pass the bill. Two members, Collins-Muhammad and Clark Hubbard, were present intermittently during the meeting but did not vote.

Collins-Muhammad, Howard and Vaccaro requested to be put on the bill as co-sponsors.

Due to procedural guidelines, the bill will be read for a second time during the full board meeting Friday, Jan. 15, and can then be voted on Jan. 22.

Near the end of the meeting, Boyd said: “I’m almost offended that people have a problem with asking voters if we should do this.”

 

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