St. Louis Mayor Touts 'Transformed' Workhouse, But Jail's Critics Call BS

Nov 22, 2019 at 5:15 pm
St. Louis' Workhouse jail, which has been described as "unspeakably hellish." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
St. Louis' Workhouse jail, which has been described as "unspeakably hellish."

What exactly is a "prison vibe"? Whatever it is, the members of a grand jury said they didn't feel it during a recent tour of the notorious St. Louis Workhouse, a jail facility which has been repeatedly sued and subject to accusations of hellish conditions for an inmate population composed almost entirely of people awaiting trial for non-violent offenses.

In a tweet earlier this week, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson highlighted the "interesting" findings related to the facility officially known as Medium Security Institution, or MSI.

"Take a look at what the jurors had to say after going on tours of the two [St. Louis City] correctional facilities," the mayor tweeted Monday evening, in which she embedded passages from a report's description of the Workhouse as "professionally run," "lean" and "transformed."

The written account of the grand jury's tour acknowledged that the facility had been subject to "years of bad press due to poor conditions," but then it went on to claim that the jail's "current reality" was nothing like that.

"From the days where over 800 inmates were housed in overcrowded conditions, using all available space, it was explained that the MSI and the courts had worked to cut the number of inmates in half," the report said. "It is still a place of incarceration, but does not convey a 'prison' vibe."

The report itself un-bylined; rather, its conclusions are presented as the collective impressions of the twelve jurors and four alternates serving on the grand jury, which was empaneled by the the 22nd Judicial Circuit for a three-month term that started in August. (In general, the role of a grand jury is similar to regular jury duty, but unlike a trial jury, a grand jury does not deliver a verdict on a defendant's guilt. Instead, it rules on whether prosecutors have justified bringing formal charges, or an indictment, against someone accused of a crime.)

Amid all that stuff, the grand jury members were also treated to tours of various city facilities, including the Workhouse.

But for attorneys who have spent years representing clients confined there — confined, that is, not because they've been convicted, but just because they can't afford to pay bail — the report's conclusion rang as bizarre and inaccurately upbeat.

"They're talking about a facility completely different than the one we've seen," says Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, the Managing Attorney for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation at ArchCity Defenders. In 2017, the non-profit law firm filed a federal class action lawsuit that alleged the Workhouse traps its inmates in "unspeakably hellish" conditions, which include insect infestation, black mold and sweltering temperatures.

"We are currently in litigation over the conditions in the Workhouse. We have not received anything to suggest that massive repairs have taken place,"claims Kutnik-Bauder. "And saying it doesn't have a 'prison vibe'? It has cells that lock. This is so inconsistent with our information."

ArchCity's 2017 suit wasn't the first time the Workhouse had been sued over its conditions — a previous suit described guards forcing inmates into "gladiator-style combat" — but that year proved to be a turning point for the controversial facility: At the time, it often held around 800 prisoners within its cell blocks, which were constructed more than 50 years ago and lacked air conditioning.

That same summer of 2017, during a heat wave that sent temperatures well over 100 degrees, prisoners were filmed shouting through the windows as they begged for relief from the heat-baked facility.

The outcry resulted in a temporary fix in the form industrial A/C units hooked up to the jail's windows, but the controversy also spurred protests and a new coalition organized under the Close the Workhouse campaign. Its backers argued that the city should end the aging facility's operations altogether, which would allow the city to reallocate the facility's $16 million annual operating budget to more effective forms of public safety.

Two years later, the Workhouse's population is indeed drastically smaller than it was in 2017 — as of November 22, the city lists 280 inmates in the facility. St. Louis' second jail facility, the City Justice Center downtown, holds another 621.

But while the grand jury report explained only that "MSI and the courts had worked to cut the number of inmates in half," Mike Milton, who runs the St. Louis office of The Bail Project, maintains that the decrease shouldn't be boiled down to a city accomplishment.

"We've bailed out 1,300 people alone out of the Workhouse," Milton tells Riverfront Times, and he notes that groups like Action STL deserve credit for establishing the "revolving bail model" that's allowed activists to bail out around 80 inmates every month — people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford to pay the price of their freedom.

"We've seen the tremendous impact that's had on the Workhouse, and it's really the community's work," he says.

It wasn't just a matter of the report awarding credit for the Workhouse's declining population. In response to Krewson's tweet earlier this week, Milton replied with a tweet of his own, describing a client with "cancer, HIV and severe depression" who had "barely been treated for any of it" but couldn't come up with a $1,000 bail.

Milton's tweet concluded, "Nothing professional, clean, or transformative about that. Also, who cut the jail [population] half?"

In his interview with RFT, Milton said he was "pretty shocked" to see Krewson raise the issue in the form of a tweet. He questioned her framing of the grand jury's impressions as proof of the facility's progress. He suggested, "It was like she was saying, 'See? I told you it wasn't so bad.'"

In fact, both Milton and ArchCity's Kutnik-Bauder argue that the big changes to St. Louis' criminal justice system haven't come from Krewson or jail officials, but from a combination of court reforms, activist pressure and the intervention of higher legal authorities: For instance, in January of this year, the Missouri Supreme Court issued sweeping guidelines to reform the state's cash-bail system, which critics compared to a systems of debtor's prisons.

Those reforms, too, had followed litigation and activist pressure. Also in January, ArchCity filed a class action lawsuit targeting the city's bail practices, alleging the policy had resulted in thousands of pre-trial detainees spending an average of 291 days behind bars.

For Milton, it's all that missing context that makes the grand jury's report of a "transformed" Workhouse so baffling. He rejects the description of the "improved" facilities and lack of "prison vibe." He says the report just doesn't fit the reality that his clients face behind the barbed wire fences and barred windows.

"You could paint the walls and make it prettier," Milton notes, "but the Workhouse is not safe. People are still being held unconstitutionally."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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