St. Louis Aldermen Pass Plan to Close the Workhouse

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The Workhouse.

St. Louis' Workhouse jail seems to be headed for retirement.

The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously this afternoon to close the notorious facility, moving it to Mayor Lyda Krewson's desk for final approval.

"I'm excited and anxious and it's about time!" says Diedre Wortham, one of the activists who fought to close the jail. "Too many people have suffered for too many years in the Workhouse, and I’m proud to be part of this incredible movement.”

The jail, officially known as the Medium Security Institution, is the older of two city correctional facilities. Built in 1966, it's long been criticized as grimy, dangerous and inhumane. Inmates often languished for months awaiting trial. In the summers, people locked inside complained of insufferable heat, eventually prompting the city to install an air-conditioning system.

Grievances against the jail were common over the years, but a formal campaign, Close the Workhouse, launched in 2018, pressuring city officials to shut it down. For more than two years, the organization lobbied relentlessly, putting together data-heavy reports and mapping out a pathway for the city to save money by closing the jail.

The campaign includes former inmates and founding organizations Action St. Louis, the Bail Project-St. Louis and ArchCity Defenders. The group has made steady progress, but there was a major shift as COVID-19 hit the city. A concerted effort to reduce the city's jail population saw the Workhouse's numbers dwindle to just dozens as of today.

Aided by the added incentive to prevent outbreaks of the virus in holding facilities, advocates for closing the jail have been able to point to the current situation — just 86 inmates in the Workhouse, more than 200 empty spots in the new jail, the City Justice Center — as proof that the aging complex wasn't worth its $16 million annual budget. Five years ago, the city's total jail population averaged 1,798 per day. There were 748 inmates counted today.

click to enlarge Kayla Reed of Action St. Louis, photographed in January, called the Workhouse is a "stain" on St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
Kayla Reed of Action St. Louis, photographed in January, called the Workhouse is a "stain" on St. Louis.

The bill passed this afternoon — Board Bill 92 — calls for winding down the facility over the coming months, moving corrections officers into other city jobs and shifting the jail's budget toward other causes, such as assigning social workers to inmates with mental health problems and establishing a fund to aid high crime neighborhoods.

“The passage of Board Bill 92 is a historic step towards justice, equity and re-envisioning public safety in the city of St. Louis," Co-founder and Executive Director of Action St. Louis Kayla Reed said in a statement. "Our campaign has always called for the closure of Workhouse as a means to invest directly into communities and this legislation does that with the creation of the Division of Supportive Re-entry and Reimagining Public Safety Fund."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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