Separated by security glass in a visiting room in the St. Louis Workhouse, Mike Milton looked into the face of a broken system. It was a weekday in early April 2019, and the face belonged to Samuel Lee Scott.
"The whole time, his head was down," Milton recalls. "He looked physically sick; his face was so swollen. His blood pressure was so high he couldn't even close his fist to use a pen to sign a document."
Scott, a 54-year-old with an address in south St. Louis, had been arrested on April 4, 2019, on suspicion of domestic violence. Charged with misdemeanor assault, his bail was set at $5,000, money he didn't have. More pressing for Scott, however, was the fact that the jail didn't have his blood pressure medication.
During the meeting, Milton had introduced himself as a representative of the Bail Project. Founded in 2017, the nonprofit was in the middle of an ambitious attempt to challenge the practice of cash bail, which allows judges to set a price on defendants' freedom while pending criminal cases move toward trial. The Bail Project's challenge took the form of freeing thousands of St. Louis defendants otherwise stranded in jail by their own poverty, with many forced to spend months, even years behind bars.
The work came fast for Milton and the Bail Project: After its first year of operation, the nonprofit found itself processing 200 cases every month. Scott's case was in many ways typical: Milton says he had learned about him through a "community referral," which allowed his team to coordinate with a "close contact" of Scott's while the nonprofit evaluated his case.
During the meeting, Milton says he informed the jailed man of the special conditions the Bail Project used in domestic violence cases; those conditions included a follow-up meeting 24 hours after release, as well as a confirmation that the Lyft ride secured for his transport from jail would go to a different address than his victim.
But Milton was operating on partial information. At the time, he didn't know that Scott's wife, Marcia Johnson, had already filed a request for a protective order, describing how her husband "mentally and physically abused" her for three years. She had asked the court to bar him from entering her home if released.
"I don't trust Samuel Scott," Johnson's statement concluded, "nor will I feel safe."
A judge signed the order, but Milton says he and the Bail Project never knew it. The group had tried to contact Johnson as part of their intake process, he says, but they were unsuccessful.
On April 9, 2019, just after 6 p.m., a St. Louis Sheriff's deputy served Scott with the protection order that banned him from being within 300 feet of his wife.
About an hour later, Scott walked out of the Workhouse. By 11 that night, police were at the apartment he shared with his wife in the 3800 block of Wisconsin Avenue. Officers reported they found Marcia Johnson "near dead" from a beating. She died five days later.
Scott was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. For Milton, it was a nightmare — one that would force him to temporarily leave St. Louis amid death threats that followed heavy local coverage of the Bail Project's role behind Scott's release.
Milton says the Bail Project did the best it could with what it knew at the time. Still, he says, "I could have quit at that moment."
"Not because I was bullied or the media was too hard," he continues, "but this was someone's life. I had all these thoughts — 'Did I make the wrong decision? Should I have let him stay and suffer in jail? Why am I doing this work?'"
Scott's maximum possible punishment for a Class A misdemeanor assault was a single year of jail time. Even without the Bail Project's intervention, it's likely that he would have been released, walking out of the Workhouse with his wife's protection order in his hand.
The Bail Project, Milton maintains, was just one piece of the tragedy, one chapter in a story of missed opportunities and failed intervention by the existing system of police, courts and judges.
"The Sam Scott situation was clearly a huge system failure," Milton says. "We took the blame, we took the hit, even though we weren't responsible. It was almost like they were telling me that I killed someone. It was probably one of the worst times of my entire life."
But from that nightmare, Milton began to dream.
Much has changed since the tragedy of Samuel Scott and Marcia Johnson. The work of the Bail Project sent the population of the Workhouse into a nosedive. Political change swept through the region, and Milton joined the campaign to close the Workhouse for good. During election season, he volunteered for the campaign of Tishaura Jones — who as St. Louis mayor made the closure of the Workhouse official city policy in 2021. (The Workhouse still holds about 145 detainees as an "annex" to the under-repair downtown jail, which is operating with limited capacity.)
In September, the Bail Project officially ended its mission in the city, though it still operates in St. Louis County and St. Charles.
But Milton's new mission is bigger than bail.
Earlier this year, he founded the Freedom Community Center, an ambitious community aid and restorative justice organization. Milton says that its focus — supporting the survivors of violence — was partly inspired by the tragedy that unfolded after his meeting with Samuel Scott.
"Sam Scott was an opportunity for us to consider all of the nuances of intimate partner violence," Milton says now. "It really led me to think about this deeply: What could have happened? What could we have done differently? How can we support victims like Marcia, but how can we also support a Sam Scott? Because nobody has to die."
The Freedom Community Center, or FCC, is still in its early stages. It is not a court-sanctioned diversion program. It's not a violence prevention agency. It's not a political advocacy group.
Instead, Milton is aiming to combine all these elements into a comprehensive vision — "a movement of survivors," as the group's website states, "that will meaningfully address violence in St. Louis City and collectively design alternatives to state systems of punishment."
On a recent Thursday evening, Milton hovers on the periphery of a "Power Builder" meeting. Held twice a month in the Jeff-Vander-Lou headquarters of Mission STL, today's gathering finds about twenty people arranged around circular tables. They talk about activism and the nature of city-wide change.
The subject of the day's Power Builder meeting is the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, an effort that began with riders such as Rosa Parks refusing to obey racist laws. The boycott lasted more than a year, involved 40,000 residents and produced a grassroots system of carpools — what was effectively an alternate public transportation system. The movement would lead a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence, help launch the Civil Rights era, and, more than 60 years later, stand as a piercing example of the power of an organized Black community.
During the meeting, people break into clusters to discuss a series of questions related to the boycotts. What would such an effort look like in St. Louis in 2021? Would people show up? Would they stay organized? The participants write their thoughts on large poster boards before presenting the conclusions of their discussions to the full group.
Observing the discussion from a table in the back of the room, Milton sees potential: "Imagine this room, but multiplied by 30," he says, gesturing to the participants hashing out their positions and activism goals. "What we hope to see is a politicized body of people who've been affected by violence come up with a strategy for what St. Louis can do to keep itself safe."
One by one, the groups select speakers to present their findings on the day's topic. One young woman notes that the boycotters in Montgomery had to be willing to give up the convenience and familiarity of the bus system to get their message across. "It seems like the future was on their mind," she says. An older man suggests that sheer numbers are more important: "We need a mass movement," he argues, "more than we need leaders."
At the meeting's conclusion, Milton walks into the center of the room. He poses a question to the room, the same one that's driven him for much of his life. It's now become the group's closing mantra.
He challenges the room: "Who keep us safe?"
In unison, the voices around him respond: "We keep us safe!"
The Freedom Community Center has a set of challenging goals: Intervening in violence, but also offering support for the parties involved in it.
Currently, Milton says the organization's staff is working with two sets of participants in domestic abuse cases, and a third set of participants involved in an assault. All have come through community referrals.
"Some survivors just want to leave, and they want to be safe," Milton says. "Some people just want that person who harmed them to get help, because they know and they love that person. They want that person to be healthy for their family. They're not ready to get them incarcerated."
Milton stresses that informal justice systems are nothing new for Black communities. On a drive to his childhood home in north St. Louis, he describes an incident as a teen when an adult family member physically attacked him. Instead of calling the police, his family intervened and helped the relative obtain anger-management counseling in a different city. When the relative returned to St. Louis, the family moderated a meeting between him and Milton, and the two reconciled.
Other harms leave deeper scars. Milton, who says he was the victim of repeated childhood sexual abuse, fell into drug addiction as a young adult. He knows what it feels like to harm the people you love. He's seen the inside of jail cells firsthand. It took him years to build his life back.
The same dynamic is still playing out in St. Louis. Economic disinvestment, abusive policing, environmental racism — all are still actively holding the city's Black communities down.
"Our communities are deeply wounded," he says. "If we want to really address violence, these communities have to heal at the core."
Starting in 2010, Milton says he began working with an outreach group for the unhoused and later founded a support group himself. The group attracted people just like him: survivors in the Black community who had found themselves trapped in a cycle of being harmed and harming others.
"It was very apparent to me at that time," he notes, "Why are so many men who look like me doing similar behavior? So much led to the harm that happened to us, and that led to us committing more harm. And on top of that you have systemic and racist policies interrupting our lives — and causing more harm in the communities."
That harm wasn't just coming from street violence or relationship abuse. Milton argues that when the police and courts get involved in a domestic violence scenario, even to intervene in harm, it can leave the survivors even more isolated, and potentially in greater danger.
For those "responsible for harm" — Milton pointedly avoids terms like "criminal" and "abuser" for the program's participants — the existing justice system may excel at punishment, but in doing so it can create generational wounds for the people around them.
"We want to be an alternative structure to the legal system, that provides a structure that we know keeps us safe," he says. "We want to figure out what the survivor needs and what they want, because incarceration doesn't do that; it's either jail or nothing. That's not equitable or right or fair, and it's certainly not survivor centered."
After a short drive from the Mission STL headquarters, Milton stops the car. We've come to a fenced playground, just a few blocks from the home he grew up in. Next to the playground is Wesley House, a social services support organization that for decades has served children and families in north St. Louis.
"This is the community center that helped save my life," he says, and, pointing through the fence, he locates the large mural covering a section of the building's white-painted brick exterior. In the mural's background, next to a vibrant green chameleon perched on a branch, is a young Black boy in a yellow shirt.
Milton treasures his memories of this place, a haven of safety in a childhood that often wasn't. The mural still brings him comfort, though it's faded over the years. The brick is showing through the paint, clouding the features of the boy in the background. But Milton still recognizes him.
"That's supposed to be me," he says.
The Freedom Community Center isn't Milton's bid for redemption. With a growing body of volunteers and staff, the group has enlisted the resources of the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Community Psychological Service, as well as experienced practitioners of restorative justice.
Erica Wright, the center's program manager, came to St. Louis after spending nearly five years in the Center for Court Innovation in Brooklyn, New York. Now supervising the Freedom Community Center's "Free Us" intensive counseling track, she oversees what she calls "a groundbreaking process" for restorative justice.
"We are part of the community — we are not part of the justice system," she emphasizes. "It's about restoring relationships. It's about who was harmed, and what they need to rectify the harm."
As the program expands, Wright says she hopes that potential criminal cases can be referred directly by prosecutors to the Freedom Community Center, and a participant's success would ultimately involve the charge being dropped — with no one being thrown into prison.
The Free Us program starts with the survivor, Wright notes, but it comes with an understanding of the generations-long oppression that's left many Black communities in St. Louis without resources, stability or safety.
"Our first point of contact is the person who was harmed," Wright explains. "We speak with them and ask them if they want the responsible person being part of this process. If that is what the victim is asking for, then it is on us, at the very least, to try to honor their wishes."
That was the case with the Freedom Community Center's first client, a mother and son. The mother, MJ, spoke to the Riverfront Times on the condition that her full name not be used out of fear of negatively affecting her son's court case and pending release.
From a young age, MJ's son had struggled with mental health and behavioral challenges. At 23, he was too old for school programs. He had spent years in and out of juvenile facilities as a result of a criminal case at age fifteen that had spiraled into probation violations. Her latest attempts to get him into a counseling program had fallen apart with the onset of the pandemic.
Over time, she began noticing changes in his behavior. He was spending all his time in his room, and he had become increasingly anxious.
At one point, she says, he asked for money. She refused, and what followed was a brutal attack. He broke down her door and struck her in the face. In a panic, she called the Freedom Community Center — but first, she called the police.
"It didn't scare him," she recalls of the effect of the police on her son. "It just made him angrier. My son continued to come back to harass me and my household. I knew this was a mental issue."
MJ says the police only were interested in arresting her son; she claims that on multiple occasions officers searched her home, tearing through her possessions in an unsuccessful attempt to find evidence with which they could link her son to other crimes.
"Not one counselor was with the police when they came," she says. "When they came, they were expecting to shoot."
Her son was eventually arrested and sent to the St. Louis City Justice Center.
Tracy Stanton, the Freedom Community Center's healing support specialist, worked with a public defender to help. She tells the RFT that she was able to provide MJ's jailed son with his mental-health medication. Relying on a network of local groups, Stanton and the center persuaded the court to release MJ's son with the understanding that the group would be responsible for his treatment and keeping him out of trouble. She set him up with housing, away from his mother and under the supervision of counselors.
In a way, it was a solution very much like the work of the Bail Project, where Stanton got her start as a "bail disruptor" while freeing detainees too poor to free themselves.
But as with Samuel Scott, getting someone out of jail often isn't enough.
According to Stanton, MJ's son was approved for release from jail — but he never made it out the front door. Instead, he was arrested immediately on a parole violation triggered by his earlier assault on his mother.
For everyone involved, the reversal was heartbreaking.
"He had all the resources he needed, that his mom said he needed, to change the trajectory of his life, which he never had before," Stanton says now. "It was hurtful, it was discouraging. It happens in numerous cases."
But that's not the end of the story, though its next chapters have yet to be written. When MJ's son is released next year, the Freedom Community Center will be there to help him address the harm he caused her, and to work to heal the relationship — for both of them.
For MJ, it's not a matter of justice or courts or punishment.
"That's my son," she says simply. "And I will not leave my son alone in this world."
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