On July 18, 2017, thousands of St. Louisans heard the desperate cries of people held at the Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse, in a Facebook video.
Inmates were enduring 100-plus degree weather with no air conditioning, and the dangerous conditions ignited intense protests outside the jail, located at 7600 North Hall St.
Three years later— almost to the day of the video posting — on Friday, July 17, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a bill to close the Workhouse by the end of the year.
“This move is an important step for the city when it comes to justice, equity and reimagining what public safety can look like,” said Kayla Reed, one of the leaders of the Close the Workhouse campaign that began two years ago.
Board Bill 92 was based on the Close the Workhouse campaign’s plan and included most of advocates’ suggested amendments. The bill will also create two funds of $7.6 million to address neighborhood safety and re-entry programs, which Reed said was just as important as closing the facility.
“If we use this money in a more effective and efficient manner, I think we will see a safer and better city,” said President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed, who sponsored the bill. “And I think we’ll see the people who have formerly been detained coming out and leading productive lives.”
Many of the aldermen, including Lewis Reed, acknowledged the long journey that activists have endured to get this done. Alderman Dan Guenther recognized 9th Ward resident Inez Bordeaux for taking her first-hand experience at the Workhouse and becoming a powerful force for the Close the Workhouse campaign.
“She took her lived experience and made a campaign that has overwhelmed this city,” Guenther said during the Friday board meeting held on Zoom, “and has been able to get us to this point to where we can finally say in 2020 that we will close the Workhouse. To Inez, we love you and can’t say enough about the work you’ve done.”
When Bordeaux first walked into the Workhouse in 2017, she said she could feel the “hopelessness.” It was festering like the black mold on the walls and rats running under the cell doors. Bordeaux, a mother of four, was working as a nurse at the time.
Bordeaux was arrested while driving for failing to report to a probation officer — an officer who had actually never been assigned to her, she said. She landed in the Workhouse with a bond set at $25,000. Because she earned less than $1,000 per month, she wasn’t able to pay even 10 percent of the bond and ended up spending 30 days in the Workhouse awaiting a probation violation hearing. She ultimately lost her job and her nursing license.
“We’ve long held the belief that jails, prisons and police do not keep us safe — investment in people and communities does,” said Bordeaux, now manager of Community Collaborations at ArchCity Defenders and lead organizer with Close the Workhouse. “While today is a win for the people who have survived the Workhouse and a big step for the entire campaign, we adamantly hold the belief that the Workhouse is irredeemable and should not be repurposed.”
The Close the Workhouse campaign is primarily led by three organizations: Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, and Bail Project St. Louis. The campaign decries the city’s “unlawful cash bail system,” according to ArchCity Defenders.
“The Workhouse has disproportionately caged Black people who are legally presumed innocent but could not afford to make a monetary payment to buy their freedom,” ArchCity Defenders stated.
As of July 17, there were 86 inmates at the Workhouse. Since the start of the campaign, the population in the Workhouse has decreased by 84 percent, down from 516 people in April 2018, the campaign noted.
Jocelyn Garner is a mother and grandmother who spent five “terrifying months” in the Workhouse. Every day she worries about the people who are still in the jail, particularly during the pandemic.
“The [$8] million that keeps it open every year should go to meeting people’s needs during this pandemic,” Garner said. “It should go towards job resources, investing in schools, mental health care, and housing. It should be used to help the community, not to lock up its members. That’s what investing in public safety looks like.”
In the past two years, the campaign has canvassed local neighborhoods, held monthly meetings, organized phone banks and rallies, published two reports, and mobilized thousands of residents to build social momentum and political will for elected officials to close the jail, according to the campaign.
The campaign builds upon work started a decade previously by the ACLU of Missouri. In 2009, the ACLU published the report “Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Corrections Centers.” One correction officer told the ACLU that “the concept of ‘care and custody doesn’t exist’ inside the Medium Security Institution. ‘It’s just control.’ That sentiment was echoed by every CO interviewed for this report.”
Lead author Redditt Hudson was assisted in his reporting by St. Louis American staff, though the newspaper declined taking credit to give the report a better chance of favorable coverage by other local media.
Just ‘a symbolic gesture’?
The bill directs the Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass to begin the process of closing the jail. It also calls for housing space for detainees at the City Justice Center to be evaluated.
What it doesn’t do is ensure that the Workhouse can’t be used as a jail in the future. The campaign tried to get this amendment passed, but the majority of Public Safety Committee members said they would not have passed the bill out of committee on July 7 with the amendment included.
Comptroller Darlene Green also tried to introduce the amendment during the Board of Estimate & Apportionment’s July 15 meeting. Green warned that the current board bill “does not compel or ensure the closure of” the Workhouse and urged that do more than just make “a symbolic gesture.”
Neither Lewis Reed nor Mayor Lyda Krewson (who make up the other two members of the board) seconded the amendment to vote on it.
Lewis Reed still must introduce a bill outlining the participatory budget process, which details how communities will be able to spend the neighborhood fund, and the campaign is excited about this process, the campaign said.
Kayla Reed said the campaign will be “watching closely” as Glass and the public safety department draft a plan to close the facility.
“We’ll remain vigilant to ensure another jail is not built in its place,” Bordeaux said. “It is time to do right by St. Louis and reinvest in communities that have been harmed by failed, racist systems like the Workhouse.”