Two years ago, I spent over five months inside St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, more commonly known as the Workhouse. I arrived at the Workhouse in March 2018 and was finally released that August. Originally from Texas, I’ve been in St. Louis for over seven years and I never imagined spending months of my life in such a horrible place.
My experience in the Workhouse was terrifying. Every day I experienced horrible living conditions, including mold on the walls and in the showers. We were forced to live in a cell with two other people which led to routine fights breaking out. I never felt safe in the Workhouse.
Every day I worry about the safety of people who are locked inside that facility. Now that the novel coronavirus is in our communities, I fear that people being held in the Workhouse are vulnerable to catching the deadly virus. Too often we hear stories of people dying in the Workhouse, and I’m terrified that people in the jail will contract this virus and not get the help they need. The human body can only take so much.
The guards do not prioritize the safety and well-being of people being held there and, with more and more confirmed cases of the virus, it's very possible that a worker can pass it on to the jail population.
Long before the pandemic, it was hard to get medical care in the Workhouse. They weren’t equipped with enough materials. They don't clean the medical area regularly, which can cause the virus to spread, making more people sick. When I went to medical, not once after someone coughed did anyone wipe anything down. People get sick from just sitting in there. It makes me angry that you could go there because of a headache and come out with the flu – or worse now.
Two years ago, when I was trapped in the Workhouse, there was an average of 516 people there. As of April 13, there were only 121 people there. While that is still 121 people too many, the city needs to take this moment and this crisis seriously and close the Workhouse for good. Every day they waste public money on keeping the Workhouse open, city leaders prove their disregard for everyone’s health and wellbeing.
The majority of people in the Workhouse have not been convicted of a crime and are only there because they can’t afford bail. Being poor shouldn’t keep you locked up and being locked up shouldn’t put your health in risk. People need to be released from the Workhouse and the City Justice Center immediately. It would reduce the risk of spreading the virus for others and themselves. We need to take this moment and rethink how we do public safety and public health.
That’s why I want to see the Workhouse closed. The $16 million that keeps it open every year should go to meeting people's needs during this pandemic. 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 fact, we wouldn’t need the Workhouse if we had enough resources. Locking people up isn't working. It’s time to try a different approach.
Jocelyn Garner is a St. Louis resident, a member of the Close the Workhouse Campaign, a mother, and a grandmother.