St. Louis Is a Big Step Closer to Closing the Workhouse

July 9, 2020

In St. Louis, Missouri—arguably the birthplace of the modern movement for Black lives—a city lawmaker has introduced a bill to close its dungeon-like medium-security jail, commonly known as “the Workhouse.” His proposal borrows heavily from the Close the Workhouse campaign.

Filter reported last year on the place of Close the Workhouse within a national movement to shut down local jails that are overcrowded and haunted by human rights abuses. In the Workhouse, 99 percent of people held are in pre-trial detention, and 82 percent are Black men—in a city that is less than half Black.

The campaign has worked for two-and-a-half years to pressure city officials, and has been much more than just slogans or hashtags. In January, it released a 12-page report detailing how the city could shut down the jail, move its employees to other city agencies, and create a process for residents to decide where the money that supports the Workhouse would go instead.

Despite this, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen recently failed to defund the jail in its budget for fiscal year 2021. The budget process itself was highly unusual, marked by a bitter fight over privatizing the city’s airport, and was the first time in 30 years the lawmakers didn’t actually vote for the budget.

But Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed nonetheless responded to the campaign’s demands by releasing a standalone plan to close the Workhouse on July 2. As it reads, it would “direct the Commissioner of Corrections to begin the process of closing the St. Louis City Medium Security Institution (MSI), also known as the Workhouse, as a detainee center.” With much of the bill directly based on Close the Workhouse materials, Reed’s staff is also working with the campaign on further amendments.

“His bill includes our main demands to close the jail,” Inez Bordeaux, an organizer for Close the Workhouse, told Filter. “It would create a department of social workers and other professionals to work with formerly incarcerated people on issues like poverty, mental health, drug addiction, poor education and get them resources to help them. It also would create a participatory budgeting process to allow our people to decide how this money gets reinvested in our city.”

The bill may be voted on as early as July 14. If it passes with at least a two-thirds majority, it will override any potential veto from Mayor Lyda Krewson.

The campaign’s main goal now that this has been introduced is to speed up the proposed schedule. Bordeaux explained that if passed, Reed’s bill wouldn’t close the Workhouse until sometime in 2021. She and her colleagues are pushing instead to make it happen by the end of 2020.

“We have seen a political tide-change on this over the last two years,” Bordeaux said. “When we first started we had three members of the Board of Aldermen in support, and now we have 14 or 15 on our side.” The Board has 28 members, suggesting that the vote may be tight. As for Mayor Krewson, Bordeaux said that she claims to support the idea in theory but argues it’s too soon to take this action.

Bordeaux and Z Gorley, another campaign spokesperson, told Filter that the Workhouse’s population has dropped significantly. In the past seven years, the total St. Louis jail population has decreased about 50 percent, while that of the Workhouse has fallen about 84 percent. It currently has 90 occupants, with a capacity for 436. Bordeaux and Gorley said this is in part due to a recent court ruling against the city, restricting judges’ use of cash bail, as well as the local Bail Project paying for people’s bail after arrest.

Events this year have made the Close the Workhouse message even more relevant. Both the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprisings have made it clearer than ever that cities need to take funds away from police and jails and put them towards helping communities, Bordeaux said.

“If this bill passes, the first step is done,” she said. “But there’s many more steps that come after that to make sure the vision of our campaign is complete. Once we get this jail closed, the next fight is to make sure the money gets allocated how the community wants it to be to help people.”

“And if it doesn’t pass, we’ll be right back in the streets to keep fighting for it.”


Photo of campaigners from the Close the Workhouse Facebook page.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander's journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and "Ban the Box" campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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