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Close The Workhouse Campaign

As its name suggests, the Close The Workhouse campaign focused the energies of activists, attorneys, community organizers and even former inmates on a single goal: Making sure no one else had to spend another night in St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution, a place whose very nickname — the Workhouse — is derived from the old debtors’ prisons of St. Louis’ nineteenth-century justice system. But 200 years later, a coalition of activists saw the modern face of that abusive system reflected in the hundreds of people locked up in the Workhouse at any given time, nearly all of them Black and awaiting pre-trial hearings on misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. They were inmates, but also debtors, doomed to lose months and even years of their lives only because they lack the money to pay bail. Confronted with the depravity, the movement to end it began in protest chants and bail fundraisers. There were demonstrations at the jail fences, across which prisoners had been filmed begging for relief from the 107-degree summer heat in their un-air-conditioned living areas. In 2018, the Close The Workhouse campaign announced itself with a bang: a 44-page report that didn’t just build an argument that the Workhouse should be closed down — but that it could be done by any of the major branches of St. Louis government. It was a challenge to those in power: You know the right thing to do, and you can do it, but will you? The work continued for two years, and in January 2020, the campaign released a second report, this time arguing compellingly that the city was wasting $16 million to keep the 53-year-old facility open when it had a far more modern jail downtown. At full capacity, the Workhouse can hold around 1,200, but in the past year its population has fallen to less than 90. The writing was on the empty cell walls. On July 17, 2020, the combination of moral and financial rectitude finally seemed to get through to St. Louis, and that day the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed Board Bill 92, which called for winding down the facility over the next months. It also forms a new Division of Recidivism Reduction, mandates the city interview the jail staff for open positions in government, and creates a fund for neighborhoods with high violent crime rates. “While we know there is work ahead, we must celebrate this moment,” the campaign organizers said in a statement after the bill passed. “We are not just closing a jail. We are proving that another world is possible.” — Danny Wicentowski

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