On the day I met Inez Bordeaux, in February 2018, there were nearly 600 people detained in the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.
That’s the city jail more commonly known as the workhouse, along the north riverfront. It has long been the subject of civil rights lawsuits and complaints of violence, horrific conditions and the jailing of men and women who mostly were behind bars because they couldn’t afford bail.
On Monday, there were 75 people in the workhouse. In a few months, that number should be zero.
Bordeaux is one of the main reasons why. The nurse and mother became an activist because of her own experience in the criminal justice system. That is why I met her in the first place, so she could tell me about how the state of Missouri put her in jail for taking too much unemployment benefits. Because of a flawed statute, the state charged her with a felony that should have been a misdemeanor. She paid a penalty, including the temporary loss of her nursing license, and a stint in the workhouse, and some time living on the streets for the state’s failure.
If not for some dedicated attorneys, including some at the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders, where Bordeaux now works, she might still be living under the cloud of a bad conviction.
Instead, she’s become a force to be reckoned with. After a more than two-year campaign by the Close the Workhouse movement, which included activists from Action STL, ArchCity Defenders, the Bail Project and other organizations, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to begin a process that should lead to the workhouse being closed by late this year or early in 2021.
It was a stunning turn of events considering how things looked just a few months ago, when some aldermen all but called activists liars for their descriptions of conditions at the workhouse, and a resolution in support of closing the facility couldn’t even get out of committee.
Then George Floyd died.
The tragic death of a black man in Minneapolis as a white police officer kneeled on his neck changed the conversation about policing, about criminal justice, about the underlying issues regarding a campaign to close a jail 560 miles south of where Floyd died.
“People who didn’t previously understand systemic racism are opening their minds because of the murder of George Floyd,” Bordeaux said.
From the beginning, Close the Workhouse was a “defund the police” sort of movement, even if the activists weren’t using those words. The city has spent up to $16 million a year keeping open a facility that isn’t really needed, and is a symbol for many Black St. Louisans of the sorts of systemic racism that many of them have suffered. That money can be better spent on mental health, community policing, the Cure Violence program and other needs that might reduce the city’s violence.
Of course, even with the Board of Aldermen vote, there is a reason for Bordeaux and her fellow activists to stay vigilant. Right now, the Missouri Legislature is convening a special session in which Gov. Mike Parson is pushing a bill that could jail people as young as 12 in adult jails. The bill has the support of the city’s public safety director, Jimmy Edwards, who was long one of the biggest obstacles to closing the workhouse. Edwards and Parson are pushing the same old “tough-on-crime” canard that filled the workhouse in the first place and never showed much success in reducing urban violence.
That’s where Bordeaux believes her group made the biggest gains in the past couple of years, getting most of the city’s political leaders to see beyond the “fear” of what happens when a jail closes.
Even as the city’s homicide rate rises this summer, its jail population is falling. Those two ideas aren’t incongruous. There’s room in the City Justice Center, the city’s main jail, for the violent criminals among us, as long as we stop using the jails as holding centers for people whose main crime is they’re poor or homeless, or have mental health needs that won’t be served by the criminal justice system.
“We won the argument,” Bordeaux says. “In the end, we weren’t fighting policy, we were fighting politics.”