After Two Years of ‘Relentless’ Community Organizing, St. Louis’ Oldest and Most Notorious Jail Is Closing

Anne Branigin, originally published at The Root

For more than a century, no other institution in St. Louis spoke to the criminalization of the poor and marginalized like the “Workhouse,” a jail notorious for housing people unable to pay their bail in deplorable conditions.

Now, thanks to the diligent work of local organizers, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously voted earlier this month to close the jail, officially known as the Medium Security Institution. The closure, the culmination of two years of steady, focused and multi-pronged efforts to engage community members and elected officials, could serve as a model for other cities looking to enact major criminal justice reforms, activists say.

“Today was a victory for the communities that were financially neglected and divested from for decades. The real win is that nobody will ever have to go to that place again,” said Mike Milton, Statewide Policy and Advocacy Manager of The Bail Project, on July 17. The Bail Project was one of the organizations involved in the Close the Workhouse campaign, which began in April 2018.

The campaign successfully integrated a number of stakeholders. Along with The Bail project, social justice organizations Action St. Louis and the ArchCity Defenders founded the campaign; former inmates of the Workhouse and more than 25 community organizations also played key roles. United by the campaign, the groups held public meetings, lobbied politicians, analyzed data and published reports, and bailed out defendants, all of which helped St. Louis residents and authorities imagine a future for the city without the jail.

This was no small feat, particularly for such a long-standing institution as The Workhouse was.

“When the facility was first established, it was created in no small part to host folks who were poor and marginalized,” Montague Simmons, a Close the Workhouse campaign manager, told The Root in 2018. The “Workhouse” moniker is derived from a Civil War-era debtor’s prison in which inmates, nearly all of whom were poor, were forced to perform tough manual labor, like chopping limestone.

The dynamic was both so apparent and appalling that the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in 1905, opined, “There would be no more chance of a man with money having chains put on him in the St. Louis Workhouse than there would be of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.”

The same statement could be applied to the modern-day Workhouse, built in 1966.

In 2018, 95 percent of the Workhouse’s inmates had yet to stand trial. And though Black people comprise only half of St. Louis’ total population, they made up 90 percent of the Workhouse’s inmates, according to a Close the Workhouse report from that year (pdf).

The ACLU also investigated the jail’s hellish conditions, publishing a report in 2009 that outlined rampant abuses, overcrowding, negligence and staff assaults on the people being detained.

Still, conditions at the Workhouse didn’t change after that report. In 2013, a lawsuit accused the jail’s guards of forcing inmates to fight each other in “gladiator-style” combat. Several years later, a group of seven inmates filed a lawsuit requesting the jail be closed for good.

But after the launch of the Close the Workhouse campaign, the jail’s population decreased considerably, from 516 people in April 2018 to 86 people as of July 16, 2020, according to a Close the Workhouse press release. The campaign credits that to a multi-prong effort: community organizing, political pressure, community and Bail Project bailouts, prosecutorial reforms, and litigation.

Reducing the numbers of those detained in the Workhouse, coupled with concerns over the spread of coronavirus in city jails, made it harder to justify the Workhouse’s $16 million annual budget, reports the River Front Times.

The campaign also outlined specific, actionable steps the city could take. The bill that will close the workhouse, put forward by St. Louis Board President Lewis Reed at the beginning of this month, builds on several of the proposals presented by a Close the Workhouse report released earlier this year. These include evaluating housing space for detainees at St. Louis’ other jail, City Justice Center; directing the Department of Personnel to help place current Workhouse employees in other city jobs, and establishing a fund and a “participatory budgeting process” to allocate resources to marginalized neighborhoods.

Jae Shepherd of Action St. Louis and Inez Bordeaux of Arch City Defenders say this year’s nationwide Black Lives Matter uprisings helped give the campaign the final push it needed.

“While we already had a strong coalition and widespread community support, there were still some who were resistant to the idea of re-imagining public safety by divesting from carcel systems like the police and jails and investing instead in people and communities,” they told The Root in a joint statement, adding that the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis helped open eyes to problems of the current criminal justice system, “in a way the deaths of Tamir and Trayvon and Rekia and Sandra and countless others somehow didn’t.”

“We saw many of those who had been holdouts finally get that last push they needed to truly examine the state of our criminal in-justice system and realize there was a real problem,” they said.

In the jail’s impending closure, they see a road map for other cities and organizers on how to effect systemic change. Shepherd and Bordeaux pointed to the data-heavy reports they released, which included analysis of the socioeconomic factors that contribute to incarceration, as well as their work partnering with community-driven organizations, civil rights lawyers and bail funds “to literally empty the jails.”

“This is an example of the power of community partnerships, knowing and strategizing around targets, and mobilizing thousands of people to make calls, send emails, and apply city-wide pressure to elected officials,” said Shepherd and Bordeau.

“Our campaign was described as ‘relentless’ because we never let up on the pressure we applied, not just to our elected officials but the pressure we put on everyone, city and county, to do what is right.”

Description of the Workhouse by Deshon Jackson, formerly incarcerated at The Workhouse.

Description of the Workhouse by Melvin Diggs, former captain at The Workhouse