Workhouse protest

St. Louis police guarded the St. Louis Medium Security Institution – known as the Workhouse – during a protest of its conditions on July 21, 2017

Although activists have been decrying conditions in the St. Louis Medium Security Institution – known as the Workhouse – for years, the videos that circulated online in early July showing inmates describing the “hellish” conditions prompted widespread outrage. The protesters’ demands that the Workhouse be reformed or shut down led the City of St. Louis to install temporary air conditioning in the jail.

Aside from the air conditioning, though, it has been unclear whether conditions inside the Workhouse have actually improved. Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green, who represents the 15th Ward, toured the jail with other aldermen recently, but was unsure if she was being given “the dog-and-pony show,” she said.

So on Friday, August 4, Green showed up unannounced at the Workhouse at 4 p.m. and asked for a tour. She brought reporters from The St. Louis American and The Riverfront Times and two activists from Decarcerate STL – who all went in undercover posing as graduate social-work students. Because none of the employees or inmates were aware that they were talking to journalists, their names have been excluded from this report.

Inmates ‘make their voices heard’

The group’s tour guide was an African-American female guard, who has worked as a correctional officer at the Workhouse for 27 years and appeared to be deeply respected by the inmates and staff alike. As she walked towards inmates, many smiled and waved. One man said, “That’s my favorite lieutenant!”

The three-hour tour began at the resident visit cages, where inmates conversed with their families through thick panes of Plexiglas. Next were the “pods,” where inmates have individual cells and are isolated from the general population for various reasons.

Two of the four pods house the entire female population of the jail, and the other two are used for “disciplinary segregation” and as housing for inmates with mental health issues or special needs.

The “dorms” – general housing areas – are starkly different from the pods. The inmates sleep in large rooms, with their beds pushed closely together. The dorms are where the air conditioning has really made a difference.

“There’s the little worms going through the windows now,” said the tour guide, pointing out the holes where the white air-conditioning tubes now enter the dorm windows.

The guards said they were grateful that the protestors and inmates “made their voices heard” this month and were able to demand that air conditioning be installed.

“It’s always been hot,” one supervisor told the group. “It’s not the first time we suffered triple digits. And we complained before, but it was always a money thing.”

The heat was so bad, she remembered, that “when you walked down the hallway, sweat was just flying at you” out of the inmates’ cells. The air conditioning has “definitely helped employee morale,” the supervisor said.

However, now some inmates walk around the facility wrapped in blankets against the almost-chilly temperatures.

In the hallways in both the pods and dorms, inmates wanted to talk to the tour group. Many shouted about “black mold,” which was visible in the showers. “Save us!” said one man.

One inmate explained that there was an extreme amount of cleaning before Mayor Lyda Krewson’s recent visit to the facility, the inmates said, so she didn’t know how bad it got.

“People who weren’t inmates here came in and cleaned,” one man said.

‘We don’t have enough people’

In the women’s pod, handmade signs saying things like “peace,” and “bless this room from all evil” covered the walls. The women lined up for their dinner – small cheese sandwiches with a scoop of beans, a few tortilla chips and cornbread.

The tour guide explained that the women were eating in their pod, instead of in the dining area, because the jail is too understaffed to feed the inmates in the dining room. Instead, each group of inmates gets their meals in their individual dorm.  

The lack of a full staff is evident in other areas, too. None of the men at the jail get any outdoor recreation time now because the Workhouse simply doesn’t have enough officers to supervise that, she said. The women occasionally get time outside, but the men haven’t been able to spend time outside in years, our guide said.

The staffing shortage isn’t because of money, the guide said. In fact, “We’re one of the highest-paid correctionals in the U.S,” she said. But as a veteran of almost three decades at the institution, she’s seen a lot of officers come and go. People who try to become guards often quit after their first few eight-hour shifts, intimidated by the constant close contact they have with inmates.

“Maybe they come in expecting something different than what they get,” she said. “We might have to break up a fight any day. It’s unpredictable. That kind of gets to them.”

‘My staff is not equipped to deal with that’

Workhouse guards are also often asked to take on the roles of mental healthcare professionals. In the disciplinary segregation and “special needs” pod, the tour guide talked about how she has to cajole inmates into taking their medication. If they don’t, she’s seen some try to run up the steps in the pods and jump off the second-floor railings.

“My staff is not equipped to deal with that,” said a supervisor.

One officer estimated that between 15 percent and 25 percent of the population at the Workhouse is made up of individuals that she would call “special needs.” But a guard’s ability to help those inmates is limited. Aside from the five social workers who serve the entire population of the jail of about 700, the only real action most jail employees can take to preserve an inmate’s mental health is to place them on suicide watch.

Physical health care is just as lacking as behavioral health care. It’s supposed to take seven to 14 days for an inmate who requests medical care to be seen, the guide said. However, according to several inmates, it can often take someone with a medical complaint up to two months to have it seen to. For dental visits, that wait time can be as high as four months, inmates said. 

“I ain’t even got a court date!”

The general-population dorms are loosely separated by level of offense, and most nonviolent offenders are housed together. The majority of inmates – or about 60 percent – are being held for charges of either possession of a controlled substance, probation violation or unlawful use of a weapon, according to data the city reported in July. 

There’s even a dorm that houses mostly men who owe over $5,000 in child support payments. Our guide said about 30 men are serving time in the Workhouse for that offense. Green was shocked to hear that, and called it “unacceptable.”

“How does that help?” Green said. “If you can’t pay child support, you certainly can’t pay your child support when you’re locked up.”

Inmates are able to make some money but can’t send it to anyone outside the jail. Those who have been in the Workhouse for over 30 days with good behavior are eligible to get a job (such as cleaning or distributing food) within the jail. These jobs, however, only pay between $2 and $5 per day.

Those who are in the Workhouse because they couldn’t pay their bond in the first place – about 98 percent of the jail’s population – aren’t able to earn enough money to do so. The average bond for an inmate, an employee said, is about $5,000. In the dorm reserved for inmates with jobs, a group gathered to talk about their experience in the jail.

One man is there because he can’t pay his $30,000 bond – 10 percent of which must be paid in cash – for possession of a firearm. Another has been there for three months without trial because he can’t pay his $1,000 bail for heroin possession.

“I’ve been here for a year, and I ain’t even got a court date!” a pre-trial inmate said. “I thought they were going to send me to drug court, but I haven’t heard anything about it.”

None of the inmates are told when their trial dates are, and even the guards are prohibited from telling them when they’ll get their day in court. It’s considered a “breach of security.”

The tour guide disagreed with the policy.

“I’d rather you know your court date than you being upset because you’re in the unknown,” she said.

‘Until the facility can be closed for good’

The jail housed around 770 inmates at the time of the last census in June – despite a 1990 district court order that the maximum number of people incarcerated there should be 481. This month, protesters accused the jail of dangerous, overcrowded conditions.

But things have been worse. A few years ago, at its peak, the jail housed about 1,200 people, a supervisor said.

“People were sleeping on bunks in the gym,” she remembered.

The Workhouse still feels crowded with 700 inmates, as beds are packed into the dorms with little room between them. Since some of the dorms are closed for repair, the others strain to house everyone.

To bring that number down further, there needs to be more support programs, both the officers and Green agreed. Otherwise, people will continue to “come back over and over again, over the years,” as a guard put it. Recidivism for Missouri inmates is at 41.9 percent.

The guide mentioned the anti-recidivism program called Prison to Prosperity, which helps give inmates ages 17-24 job training while they’re incarcerated and assists them in getting jobs with SLATE, the St. Louis government jobs agency, once they’re released.

Prison to Prosperity, which had its pilot run last year, was re-funded by the City of St. Louis for this year and starts up again next week. The program helped 168 Workhouse inmates last year. Among those people, the recidivism rate was only 15 percent. Green hopes to find some funding to expand that program and help keep people out of jail.

“If we don’t have some kind of intervention on the street, they’ll keep coming back,” a guard said.

Green hopes to help provide funding for more addiction and mental health treatment programs, so that the Workhouse doesn’t function as the city’s de facto treatment center. She plans to introduce a counter-proposal to Krewson’s half-cent sales tax increase that will be on the ballot in November to increase officer salaries. Instead, Green is floating a .5-percent payroll tax increase, which will generate about $10 million more than the November sales tax proposal. This money will go towards just the sort of programs Workhouse employees say they need.

“With investments in mental health, drug treatment, and the expansion of the Prison to Prosperity Program, these funds will transition the Workhouse into a rehabilitation center that helps to end the cycles of mental illness, addiction and poverty that keep people coming back to the criminal justice system,” Green said.

Ultimately, those programs will mean less people coming back to the Workhouse. Green believes these changes could even “decrease its population enough that its services are no longer needed, and the aging facility can be closed for good.”

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