St. Louis Weighs What to Do With the Shuttered “Workhouse” Jail

    For years, St. Louis activists have fought to shut down the city’s notorious Medium Security Institute, better known as the “Workhouse.” They won a victory in 2022, when newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones (D) agreed to empty the jail and not detain any new people there.

    Right now, the city is considering newly submitted proposals from activists and residents for what to do with the Workhouse site. These include a memorial to incarcerated people, and components such as a green energy hub and off-site resource hub. Meanwhile, another battle continues over conditions and accountability at the city’s biggest remaining jail.

    Built in 1966, the Workhouse deteriorated over the decades, and detainees reported poor sanitation and medical care, violence, extreme temperatures, and infestations of mold and pests. In 2017, legal advocates ArchCity Defenders launched a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of seven people formerly incarcerated there.

    Conditions in the jail, combined with the political climate after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, suggested a historic opportunity to “Close the Workhouse”—and activists launched a pressure campaign under that name.

    Among them was Inez Bordeaux of ArchCity Defenders. In 2019, she spoke at a national drug policy reform conference held in St. Louis about how her own traumatic 30-day stay at the Workhouse “radicalized me.”

    “Burn it down,” she said when asked about the facility’s future. “As far as I’m concerned, it can be a vacant lot where we can go and do barbecues.”

    Since June 2022 the Workhouse has remained empty, if not quite officially shut down.

    Activists’ arguments were ethical but also practical. The Workhouse almost entirely held people on pre-trail detention, meaning they were awaiting trial and presumed innocent, just unable to pay bail. By 2020, the Workhouse had only 90 occupants in a jail designed to hold 436; the citywide jail population had halved in the prior seven years.

    A breakthrough came in July that year, when the City Council voted unanimously to close the jail by December 31, transfer employees to other city agencies, and use part of the jail’s $16 million budget to provide aid and support to formerly incarcerated people.

    Then-Mayor Lyda Krewson (D) slowed the process down. But in April 2021, St. Louis got a new mayor in Tishaura Jones, who campaigned on a promise to close the Workhouse. In June, she announced that there were no people detained at the facility, and the new city budget would fully defund it.

    But months later, the city transferred some people to the Workhouse once again. It wasn’t until June 2022—after mounting public pressure to honor her promise—that Mayor Jones took the last people out. ArchCity Defenders confirms that since then, the Workhouse has remained empty, if not quite officially shut down.


    What to Do With the Site?

    The desire to close the chapter for good is why activists are now pushing for what comes next. On February 28, the “Re-envisioning the Workhouse Committee” delivered a report to Mayor Jones with recommendations for how to demolish the jail and repurpose 30 acres of land for the public benefit. The city government endorsed and funded the committee, which spent 18 months consulting with 2,500 St. Louis residents through community meetings and direct outreach.

    The Committee is calling for a memorial on the Workhouse site to people who suffered and died there. It also recommends using parts of the land to build an animal shelter, solar energy hub, prairie site and industrial facility.

    The report meanwhile rejects other potential uses for the site, such as for an emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness, citing the “environmental toxicity, physical isolation, and emotional trauma associated with the site.”

    “The city has been hiding away its ‘undesirable’ people on this site for years,” said one community member cited by the Committee. “If our homeless were moved here, the city would be continuing to sweep its problems under the rug, away from public view, and throwing away people on this unwanted site.”

    “Not having a need met is what got some of us there in the first place. So, we would light up the dark by re-envisioning a sanctuary of services.”

    There are practical concerns with building any housing on the site. The Workhouse is located in a primarily industrial area, far from many other businesses and services. And the land is contaminated with industrial toxins that would need to be addressed before any new building.

    The Committee is also recommending an off-site “Memorial Resource Hub,” designed to help currently or formerly incarcerated people and others at risk from violence or poverty. This would include a health clinic with rehabilitation and mental health services, youth and jobs programs, and rest and healing spaces. There would also be transitional housing here, in response to the city’s homelessness crisis.

    “It would be dedicated to the people who have lost their lives, their sanity, and their way due to the destruction and abuse the Workhouse caused,” said Jocelyn Garner, a member of the Re-envision the Workhouse Committee and Close the Workhouse campaign, in an ArchCity Defenders press release. “Not having a need met is what got some of us there in the first place. So, we would light up the dark by re-envisioning a sanctuary of services.”


    The Battle Over the City Justice Center

    As these discussions continue, so does a battle over the city’s largest remaining jail, the St Louis City Justice Center. Accountability is a big part of it: An independent oversight board, created by Mayor Jones, has been blocked from accessing the jail by her own corrections commissioner, Jennifer Clemons-Abdullah.

    One board member previously told Filter that the Justice Center was seeing its population increase beyond capacity, as staff numbers fell. In October, the Missouri State Auditor’s Office announced that it would investigate conditions at the jail, as city officials seem to be stonewalling the oversight board.

    Z Gorley, communications director at ArchCity Defenders, told Filter how their organization is currently suing the city over complaints including repeated use of mace by staff, and denial of water and health care to people incarcerated at the City Justice Center.

    “Is there such a thing as a humane jail? At ArchCity Defenders that’s not something we believe.”

    But they pushed back on the idea that the jail is over capacity, saying this is based on inaccurate information, and of course maintained that no one should be sent back to the Workhouse to alleviate overcrowding. Instead, they said the city’s priority should reducing the jail population further by changing policing and bail policies. Too many people, primarily Black residents, are likely to get arrested on minor charges, then kept in city jails pre-trial because they can’t afford bail.

    ArchCity Defenders was part of a 2019 lawsuit against St. Louis, arguing that its bail hearing process was unconstitutional, but that case was dismissed by the court.

    “Is there such a thing as a humane jail?” Gorley asked. “At ArchCity Defenders that’s not something we believe, as we are rooted in an abolitionist framework.”

    “Individuals who are held pre-trial are either held on a bond they absolutely couldn’t afford, or held on no bond,” they continued. “The arraignment and bond hearings are part of this picture of how many people are in CJC, what are the conditions there, and what are the factors leading up to it.”


    Photograph via Close the Workhouse

    Correction March 4, 2024: This article has been revised to reflect that ArchCity Defenders’ bail lawsuit was filed in 2019, and the Workhouse’s annual budget was $16 million, facts that were originally misstated.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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