Inez Bordeaux and Michelle Higgins of the Close the Workhouse campaign

Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation and former co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, contributes this week’s guest Political EYE.

St. Louis is in the national spotlight again. As my South City neighbors and Grand Marshal Bob McCulloch were recovering from the St. Patty’s Day Parade in Dogtown, BET’s “Finding Justice” docuseries turned cameras on the campaign to Close the Workhouse in St. Louis and end cash bail. The second episode featured groups like Action STL, ArchCity Defenders and The Bail Project.

There were plenty of familiar grassroots voices telling our community’s story of freedom for sale and debtors’ prions. Critical among the local faces was Inez Bordeaux, a single mother who, when faced with a $25,000 cash bail requirement, lost her freedom and her family. She shared her experience powerfully as the reason she now organizes with the campaign.

Two powerful St. Louis political faces, though, were clearly unsettled. Public Safety Director Jimmie M. Edwards and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis E. Reed.

Edwards was in the awkward position of declining a journalist’s request to tour the Workhouse shortly after boasting about allowing access to the press to examine its living conditions. As Mayor Lyda Krewson’s first line of defense on criminal justice reform matters, Edwards is often found in uncomfortable positions. I don’t know anyone, though, who would question his integrity in the way this on-camera moment seemed to.    

President Reed, shown meeting with organizers from the campaign to shutter the Workhouse, seemed more unsure than uncomfortable. There is always more to a meeting than can be recorded or reported. So, context is important. Reed’s chair-shifting and verbal processing in the session captured by BET felt consistent with his affirmation of the campaign’s rationale, yet reticence to endorse the demands during his recent re-election bid.

His back-and-forth posture at the table reflects his public stance on the Workhouse. Reed is still trying to figure out where to put his weight. And he still has plenty of political weight to bring to bear.

Both of these men have provided years of sacrificial service to St. Louis, which I respect and invite others to regard as well. If some regional actors have their way, Reed will be the city’s last aldermanic president. With this and recent election results in mind, I urge Reed to reflect on his legacy with St. Louis citizens and place his weight in two key places.

First, Reed should weigh in on community well-being. Closing this city-run institution with documented inhumane conditions would free necessary resources for community priorities, including affordable housing, mental healthcare and affordable child care. The budgeting process, stewarded under his gavel, can be a space of community visioning and reimagining public safety. This kind of regional reflection during the Ferguson Commission process prioritized community justice centers, where direct services and supports like mental healthcare could help keep us all safe.  

Because budgets are moral documents which should reflect people’s values, our choice of locking people up who can’t pay bail over making re-entry programs more accessible is cause for earnest soul-searching. The aldermanic president’s leadership of a budget process focused on community well-being could lead him and the city to settle into the demand to “Close the Workhouse.” 

Similarly, Reed should exert his considerable weight in fiscal oversight and accountability. As the leader of the Board of Aldermen and one-third of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, he has expansive influence over the spending priorities of the city. This includes the $16 million a year invested in the aging infrastructure and operations of the Workhouse, formerly known as the Medium Security Institution.

Communications to aldermen from the mayor’s office recently made clear that reorganizing the staffing and space of the City Justice Center would accommodate people left in the Workhouse, if cash bail were eliminated. Said another way, if the city would stop locking people up who have not been convicted of anything just because they are poor, we wouldn’t waste additional dollars on the Workhouse.

All this said, I identify with Reed. I identify with him because of my role as leader of a philanthropic organization with an eye toward community well-being and responsibility for fiscal oversight and accountability. Deaconess Foundation and the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being lend support to the campaign to Close the Workhouse because we hear Inez Bordeaux and other parents who have their families torn apart, children traumatized and assets extracted from them by the cash bail system.

We also see shining examples from our colleagues in other communities, transforming jails into community spaces, the way the Bible calls for “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” In New York, the Novo Foundation is supporting construction of a Women’s Building focused on “equality, liberation and justice for all girls and women everywhere” at the former location of Bayview Correctional Facility. In Seattle, with support from the Social Justice Fund, 120 organizations have sustained a six-year campaign to stop the construction of a new youth jail. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the Ford Foundation, Southerners on New Ground in Atlanta has pressed the city to transform cash bail. 

These foundations and Deaconess have settled into our commitments to community well-being and fiscal accountability. We have found these to be responsible places to settle our weight. Mr. President, you may do the same and find great comfort for yourself and our community.

Rev. Starsky D. Wilson is president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, board chair for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and former leader of the Ferguson Commission. Follow him at @revstarsky and @deaconessfound.

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