St. Louis’s Shameful Workhouse Jail Must Be Shut Down

In St. Louis, the demand to defund the police has dovetailed with long-lasting struggles against cash bail and the abuse of prisoners. The Board of Aldermen’s passing of a bill that promises to start closing the city’s most notorious jail reflects the movement’s strength — but also the need for pressure to ensure that abolitionist demands are not watered down into merely cosmetic reforms.

Members of the Close the Workhouse campaign hold a banner in St. Louis, Missouri.

On June 29, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, Lewis Reed, filed Board Bill 92 — a motion to begin a process to close the city’s notorious Workhouse jail and reinvest the funds elsewhere. The Workhouse effectively operates as a debtor’s prison: it almost exclusively cages legally innocent residents, i.e., “nonviolent offenders” pre-trial, indeed for an average of 290 days. Their only offense is that they can’t afford cash bail.

Formally called the Medium Security Institution (MSI), conditions in the Workhouse are squalid — and abusive. In 2009, the Missouri ACLU told of “endemic abuse of inmates” in the jail, reporting that guards regularly encouraged and organized fights among captives; in a 2013 survey of 358 jails by the Department of Justice, the Workhouse ranked third in reports of sexual misconduct by staff. The last five years have seen the death of six detainees inside the jail. Medical assistance is scarce at best, and outright neglect is common. In summer 2017, Heather Ann Thompson reported on the temperatures north of 110°F repeatedly endured by those trapped inside the Workhouse, without air conditioning. In one video, prisoners were heard crying out for help — after the footage went viral, protesters rallied outside the gates.

Conditions in the jail have long sparked uproar. “We must say, in no way did we discover these things for the first time,” Blake Strode of the nonprofit civil rights legal advocacy organization ArchCity Defenders told listeners of his podcast Under the Arch. “You can trace litigation against the Workhouse back to the 1970s. It was like the same things had been happening for decades.” Indeed, already in 1975, revered St. Louis activist Percy Green, then the chairman of ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes), wrote an op-ed in sharp opposition to the expansion of the Workhouse through a city bond issuance.

In 1990, Clyde S. Cahill — the city’s first African-American district judge — filed a court order on the Workhouse and its conditions. Here, District Judge Cahill wrote, “The police have no trouble finding these offenders, they scoop them up from the corners of North St. Louis like shovelfuls of sand from a beach,” but, he added, “These persons are still men and women who are entitled to be treated with dignity as human beings.”

So, the resistance in St. Louis is far from new. But it has picked up steam in recent years, and now even more so alongside national calls to defund the police and dismantle the carceral state.

“At this point, where do we find the real change?” St. Louis organizer Michelle Higgins asked in a video interview with Jacobin. “It’s hyper-local.” Higgins is a leader with the Close the Workhouse campaign which she cofounded in 2018, and serves as the director of Faith for Justice and as pastor at St. John’s Church, where she continues to hold her revolutionary womanist sermons. The campaign to Close the Workhouse works closely with ArchCity Defenders, Action STL, and the Bail Project.

“What we have been fighting for the last few years collectively,” Higgins said, “is control. Control through mass public education. And our work has been intersectional abolitionism.” Most of the organizers in these groups work at the regional and national level with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), which has fortified a network of black organizers — both existing and new, to comprise over 150 black-led organizations.

Their organizing recognizes the truth of Angela Davis’s argument that “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.”

Donkey Capitalism

“Thousands of hours, y’all, thousands and thousands of hours of canvassing, advocacy, and talking to people,” organizer at ArchCity Defenders Inez Bordeaux told an interviewer, “that’s what it took to finally get this legislation passed.” Bordeaux became a leader in the movement shortly after she was incarcerated in the Workhouse in 2016, when an error in the system left her with a probation officer who had left the department. Bordeaux’s crime was the failure to report to an officer who she could not report to. “I’m hopeful, but not quite celebrating,” she said. “We can’t let the city drag this out: no more writing reports and collecting data and all the talk. We simply refuse to step into 2021 with the Workhouse open — period.”

Bordeaux and the coalition expressed only measured hopes in Lewis Reed’s Board Bill 92 when it was introduced, since it appropriated most of its proposals directly from movement demands. It initially called to have the Workhouse closed within six months and only half of the total current operating budget, i.e., $8.8 million, reinvested into crime reduction measures and reducing recidivism. But Reed managed to initially circumvent the amendment to close the Workhouse the activist coalition had been crafting and chose instead to legislate unilaterally. “Lewis essentially went out and copied our homework in an attempt to save face and take credit, but he still managed to miss on many points,” Bordeaux said.

As well as their skepticism in the Democrat Reed, activists were troubled by loopholes in the language of the bill, as well as its timing. Reed has long been integrated into the city’s ruling elite, with ties to capitalist “special interests”; and his proposal does not represent a simple victory for the people of St. Louis or for movement leaders. After releasing Board Bill 92, Reed told local reports he “always supported” criminal justice reform. “First of all,” Higgins told us in response, “no he ain’t. We questioned him repeatedly about closing the workhouse in 2018 when he ran for president of the Board of Aldermen, and we organized the debates. His responses were worthless.”

Indeed, in early 2019, in the run-up to those elections, Reed was the only candidate who refused to sign a pledge proposed by the coalition to definitively close the Workhouse. And even in the days and weeks leading up to his bill, Reed and his staffers publicly opposed such calls to shut it down.

Bait and Switch

On July 2, Reed finally introduced the bill to close the Workhouse, following a special meeting originally scheduled to discuss the city budget. While Reed’s bill might actually end up delivering part of what activists have been advocating for decades, they all note the bait and switch in the works. “It’s always been clear that Lewis [Reed] needed something big to cover up the airport privatization plan,” Higgins said. “We just never thought it would be closing the Workhouse.”

The loose wording of the bill was widely criticized, most notably by ArchCity Defenders; indeed, the coalition introduced nearly a dozen amendment suggestions. “On the one hand, I am thrilled that the bill appears to be advanced,” Montague Simmons, a longtime organizer with the coalition told us, “but knowing St. Louis, the devil is always in the detail.” The bill as introduced did not necessarily guarantee the closure of the Workhouse, or respond adequately to the decades-long demands to address structural inequalities by reinvesting in public health, education, and social programs.

The coalition’s amendments to the bill compensate for these weaknesses. The most successful amendments enforce participatory budgeting, allocation of local decision-making powers, and a holistic approach to addressing the needs of incarcerated persons. Thus the coalition managed to mold the bill closer to their original plan of radically reenvisioning the city’s “dangerous, deeply racialized, and violent definition” of public safety, as Mike Milton, director of the Bail Project St. Louis, called it. “So in early July, the strategy was twofold,” Higgins argued. “One, we asked alders to push [our] amendments. The second part was the power of the people to move elected officials who need to be unelected with the understanding that people power is strong.”

Private Interests, Public Costs

The airport privatization plan is, indeed, central to what is going on in St. Louis. It has been underway since at least 2017, when exiting mayor Francis Slay set the ball rolling, assisted by Grow Missouri, a nonprofit funded by Republican donors and St. Louis billionaire Rex Sinquefield. Public outrage ensued as Slay began the privatization process while mayor, and then his own law firm, Spencer Fane LLP, was hired to represent the potential buyers less than a year after he left office. Eventually, after a long fight, anti-privatization activists claimed victory last December when Mayor Lyda Krewson halted the process, citing the risk of any such sale, faced with the near-complete lack of public support. But with the deal apparently dead, tens of millions of dollars in consulting fees were left on the table — for they were only contractually obligated if the move were to go through. Many suspect that the key driving force behind the specter of privatization has reemerged: Sinquefield and his associates want to recoup what was owed from the city.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Lewis Reed introduced Board Bill 71. If successful, this would make the St. Louis Lambert International Airport the second privatized airport in the US mainland (leaving aside the airport privatization in Puerto Rico). Lewis Reed and other city politicians have consistently proclaimed that the money from the sell-off will be used to address structural problems in the impoverished, overwhelmingly black neighborhoods on the North Side of St. Louis, long neglected by the city.

Given the acceleration of the city’s existing fiscal crisis, its declining population, and increasing inequalities, privatization might appear as an attempt at damage control. “Theoretically, I understand the city and the North Side is in such dire straits . . . when you’re drowning, let’s be honest, everything looks like it could be a lifeboat,” Bordeaux said. “But we could do it a different way.”

In light of Reed’s attempt to bury airport privatization with a call to close the Workhouse jail, a broad resistance front has been forming in St. Louis. The Close the Workhouse coalition, the anti-privatization activists at STL Not for Sale, union members with SEIU 1, and alderpersons seen as progressive are collectively resisting the false dichotomy put forth by some city officials. “Lyda [Krewson] and Lewis [Reed] — I think they have decided they can’t lose both fights,” said Josie Grillas, a member of STL Not for Sale, “so they wanted to make us choose: close the Workhouse or stop airport privatization. It’s best if they can pit us against each other.” But Bordeaux said the two coalitions are working together now. “We’re pretty much on the same page, now it’s a matter of figuring out what that looks like,” Grillas added. “Any chance we have to amplify the call to close the Workhouse, we need to do it. But we believe there is no choice here — we can win both.”

Megan Green, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and alderwoman for the 15th Ward, has been one of the most vocal opponents in City Hall of the privatization of public assets in St. Louis. She argued: “While I disagree with privatization as a public policy option, now would actually be the worst time to privatize if you wanted to get the most amount of resources to such a deal in St. Louis city.” No industry has been more utterly grounded by the coronavirus than air travel, and St. Louis is no exception. “We have a lot of instances where privatization has not worked out in the public interest, whether it’s the water lines in Flint or the parking meters of Chicago, it has only worked out to make already rich people richer,” Green insisted.

“Privatization,” Grillas said, “when it’s studied, has been proven to disproportionately harm Black women and communities plagued by divestment. This is neoliberalism or capitalism. Public-sector jobs have historically been a vector to the Black middle class — so as I see it, anti-privatization is an effective piece of antiracism work in St. Louis.”

“It’s been very hard to build a sustained coalition,” Simmons told us. Since the legislative side of effecting policy changes goes through the bureaucracy of City Hall, sustaining any coalition would require a continued effort to work with alderpersons and city officials. Megan Green pitched in: “Most of the coalition that I am working with is in favor of closing the workhouse but also against privatizing the airport, and so we are going to have to keep our coalition together, both in the community and at the board to make sure that we can get the Workhouse closed but that we do not send forward a bill that would privatize our airport.”

Theory in Action

What does defunding the police mean? What does abolitionism look like? These questions were hotly discussed in St. Louis as across the United States following the tide of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. On Friday, July 17, 2020, the Board of Aldermen in the city of St. Louis unanimously passed Board Bill 92. Now that it seems certain the Workhouse is shut down, it remains unclear what might follow.

The city’s larger jail, the Justice Center, has enough capacity to house the inmates currently in the Workhouse. “The reason for the emphasis on the Workhouse is that it’s a hellhole,” Jamala Rogers, leader with the Organization for Black Struggle told us. Montague Simmons agreed, insisting on the need for a wider conversation around the carceral system, including the city’s other jail: “We have heard Jimmy Edwards [the director of public safety] say explicitly that that is his cash cow — he keeps the Workhouse, so he can keep generating funds for the other facility.” But for Simmons, ending the mass incarceration of innocent people also demands an end to cash bail: “Even the courts were just outraged by the way that cash bail has been applied in the city. I think honestly it’s about time; that’s not just a local turn, that’s a national turn.”

“The cash bail system is deeply racialized,” argued Kayla Reed in an interview in 2019. As Bordeaux has consistently stated, “If you are Black in St. Louis, either you or someone you know has been in the Workhouse.” Forty-nine percent of St. Louisans identify as African-American, and over 90 percent of the people in the Workhouse at any given time are African-American — the vast majority of them with an income under $40,000.

In January, a coalition of organizations led by ArchCity Defenders and the Advancement Project filed a class-action lawsuit against the city contesting the very practice of pretrial detention and cash bail. “But between the bailouts, the lawsuits, and the campaign, and continuing advocacy, we have started to see [changes] just in the number of people incarcerated in the region,” Blake Strode said in 2019. From 567 people incarcerated in 2017 to under 100 in 2020 — with an over 30 percent reduction in total numbers across both jails — part of the effort has been to make the facility redundant. “The total population is artificially buoyed up because of federal detainees,” Strode added. “People are coming back to court without needing any bail or anything.”

Mike Milton has spearheaded the effort to establish the first chapter of the Bail Project in St. Louis. This has bailed out over 2,400 people across St. Louis City and County, with 94 percent of people returning for all court dates, 50 percent of those cases being completely dismissed — all the while saving $16 million for the city.

Defunding the Police

The campaign to Close the Workhouse was inspired in large part by cofounder and executive director for Action St. Louis, Kayla Reed, who fundraised $17,000 in 2017 to help bail out black mothers of the Workhouse on Mother’s Day. She in many ways foresaw Board Bill 71, writing previously about the need to ensure “the opposition doesn’t co-opt our language to create a reality” that comes up short of their demands. But now, as she warned, the fight begins to ensure that the closure of the Workhouse doesn’t come alongside the expansion of the carceral apparatus elsewhere — as was the case when New York’s Rikers Island shut down, only for jails to be opened in each of the city’s five boroughs.

Even the passing of the amended bill to close the Workhouse is testament to the industrious organizing by the city’s black-led coalition. The effort to close the Workhouse is part of a larger strategy to address the injustices of “the prison-industrial system,” as organizers with the campaign have repeatedly formulated. The larger abolitionist framework seeks to abolish the “criminalization of poverty,” Bordeaux insisted.

Similar to other initiatives across the United States, defunding the police is also part of the local agenda for the coalition in St. Louis. The current St. Louis budget dedicates 53 percent to “public safety,” a large part of which consists of funding police ($234 million) and the carceral system. Reenvisioning this is central to the coalition’s goals. “We should rethink what it looks like for jail is not the first place a person lands,” Milton said. “We need to change the conversation from public safety to public health — what does the public need to be healthy, and what does community well-being look like?”

“Some abolitionists make the argument of moderation: one goal post at a time,” Higgins said. “Either way, the thing that will create generational or legacy changes is undoing the criminality of the budget itself.” What is clear is that the efforts of the organizers and activists have been essential to transforming both the discourse and the material conditions toward these ends. As Thomas Harvey of the Advancement Project put it, “because everyone realizes the law isn’t going to set everyone free, it is going to be other people doing it.”

“I just don’t understand why it’s the city’s largest asset, our airport, that they are willing to sell off for the next fifty years,” Bordeaux concludes, “when we could literally just defund the police.”

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Mihir Sharma teaches political anthropology at the University of Bayreuth. He writes about social movements, race, and antiracist organizing, and participates in migrant antifascist activism in Berlin, Germany.

Clark Randall is an independent writer from St. Louis, now based in Berlin. His work considers questions of race, class, and housing in the United States and internationally.

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