‘We don’t want this Workhouse fully funded’

“If we stopped relying on unconstitutional pretrial detention policies, our jail population would continue to decrease significantly,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, seen here at a March 2019 discussion of the “Close the Workhouse” report.

Photo by Wiley Price

Alderman Dan Guenther is not urging the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to “lock themselves to the door” of the Medium Security Institute (MSI), also known as the Workhouse, in order to get the jail closed down, Guenther said at the January 29 aldermanic public safety committee.

“We are saying, ‘Let’s start coming up with a transition plan,’” said Guenther, who represents the 9th Ward. “We don’t want this Workhouse fully funded.”

On January 17, Guenther introduced a resolution “advising” the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A) — which includes the mayor, comptroller and president of the Board of Aldermen — that aldermen will not approve a budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that includes full funding to the Workhouse. It also asks the Board of E&A to come up with a plan to close the Workhouse and direct the approximately $16 million in savings to things such as victim and pretrial services.

According to the resolution, the St. Louis Justice Center, located at 200 S. Tucker, has a capacity of 860 detainees, and the Workhouse at 7600 Hall St. has a capacity of 1138, for a total of 1998 detainees. The city currently spends approximately $16 million a year to operate MSI and $24 million a year to operate the Justice Center for a total of $40 million.

As of last week, the Workhouse was housing 238 detainees, Guenther said, which is about 20 percent of the facility’s capacity. The mayor’s chief of staff Steve Conway later argued that it was not operating at 20 percent capacity because the Workhouse’s second floor and other parts have been shut down.

The resolution is largely fueled by the fact that the city’s jail population drastically decreased, Guenther said, and Guenther gives credit to several nonprofits and organizations who have been working for years towards this goal. In 2013 the city jails housed 1,450 people, and last week there were about 930, Guenther said, citing the mayor’s data.

“That’s a 40 percent reduction in the population of our jails,” he said.

Alderwoman Annie Rice (D-Ward 8) spoke about how the recent reforms in the criminal justice system — including federal court-mandated bail reforms — has helped to decrease the city’s jail population. The Missouri Supreme Court also has issued new rules about holding people on bail who can’t afford it.

“Our judges and prosecutors understand that there is a better way to do this,” Rice said. “This reduction in numbers is not going to go up because we are doing criminal justice differently.”

Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, had a representative read his statement at the hearing. ArchCity Defenders sued the City of St. Louis in federal court for keeping people in jail without allowing them to go before a judge for a proper bail hearing. The federal court granted them an injunction, which was active for five or six days. During that time, the city courts provided new bail hearings to approximately 173 people, and 118 of those people were released as a result, according to ArchCity Defenders.

“This was the result of the same judges actually considering individual circumstances and ability to pay,” Strode said in a statement that was read at the hearing. “The takeaway: if we stopped relying on unconstitutional pretrial detention policies, our jail population would continue to decrease significantly.”

The response from aldermen at the January 29 public safety committee hearing was a mix of skeptical and supportive. Alderman Joe Vaccaro (D-Ward 23) said he was concerned that if there was a deadlock in the budget negotiations and the Board of E&A refused, then the city would end up implementing the mayor’s budget by default.

“And all the things we fought for, like more money for cutting grass, would be lost,” Vaccaro said.

Guenther responded that they would likely have two of the three Board of E&A members on their side. President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed has always been a strong advocate for the aldermen, Guenther said, and Comptroller Darlene Green has come out in support of the resolution.

Indeed, last April Green published a column in The American calling for the Workhouse to be closed and arguing for the feasibility of doing so in a short period of time. “Closing the Workhouse is the right thing to do,” Green wrote. “It is within reach and can be completed in a matter of months, not years, with focus from the administration.

“If we have two members of the E&A supporting this resolution,” Guenther told Vaccaro, “then I think that your concern that all of a sudden everything is at deadlock is mute.”

Alderman Jesse Todd (D-Ward 18), who is not a committee member, spoke in favor of the bill.

“We are talking about racism,” Todd said. “This is the new form of segregation for black people. We should close it down as soon as possible, and we should be unapologetic.”

Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass said that they had to consider that all the 860 beds at the Justice Center are not available. Some are solely dedicated to women and keeping some inmates isolated from others. However, he said that he shared the goal to decrease the jail population and applauded the organizations’ efforts.

Conway told the committee that the mayor is committed to closing the workhouse. He also said that the jail does not mistreat individuals and that no one is currently being held because they can’t pay bail.

The resolution was initially announced at a January 14 press conference with the organizers of the Close the Workhouse campaign, showcasing their new report “Close the Workhouse: A Plan and a Vision.”

By the time the aldermen got to public comments, all but three of the aldermen on the committee had left the meeting.

Kayla Reed, of Action STL, said that it was disheartening that the aldermen stayed to hear from all the city officials — including Glass and the mayor’s chief of staff Steve Conway — but that they would not be hearing from the organizations that have led the effort to decrease the jail population. Those organizations include the Bail Project, Action STL, ArchCity Defenders and the Advancement Project.

“If we are going through this process, we have to actually embrace democracy,” Reed said. “I think it’s unfair to the campaign, to constituents and voters to have sat there since 11 a.m., and when we finally get the opportunity to speak, the folks who are responsible for listening to us have already walked out. It is a biased response to only listen to those employed by the city.”

Guenther said he plans to work with the committee chair, Vaccaro, to organize an evening meeting to accommodate residents’ working schedules. As of press time, the meeting had not been scheduled.

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