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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Protesters target medium security jail in heat

Margaret Sherer of University City protests outside the St. Louis medium security jail known as the City Workhouse on Friday, July 21, 2017, as about 150 gathered to call attention to inhumane conditions at the facility because of the lack of air conditioning. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@Post-dispatch.com

When it comes to the city’s medium security prison, known as the City Workhouse, Mayor Lyda Krewson wants to have it both ways.

On one hand, she’s proud of the fact that the jail population at the facility that has been subject to multiple lawsuits over “hellish and inhumane conditions” has been significantly decreased. In 2016, the city averaged 1,400 prisoners in its two city jails. On April 10, that number was 1,046, with 226 of those being federal defendants held on contract. The City Workhouse, with a capacity of 1,138, held only 343 defendants that day.

Krewson, her chief of staff Steve Conway, and her director of public safety, Judge Jimmie Edwards, all say the mayor’s office deserves credit for the jail population reduction.

“We’ve done that through focusing on it,” Krewson said last week in a meeting with Post-Dispatch editors and reporters.

On the other hand, Krewson also said this in the same meeting:

“The mayor’s office doesn’t have anything to do with how many people are in jail,” she said. That’s up to Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, and public defender Mary Fox, to judges and the bail they set. It’s about the overall level of crime, and the city’s decision to ask the U.S. attorney’s office to prosecute certain gun crimes in the city.

Krewson called the meeting with the Post-Dispatch in response to a letter from Comptroller Darlene Green last week that added her voice to the growing chorus that is singing the phrase: Close the workhouse. There’s city Treasurer Tishaura Jones, state Sen. Jamiliah Nasheed, Alderman Megan Green, Fox and, of course, the most compelling voice of all: Inez Bordeaux.

I first wrote about Bordeaux a year ago. The single, black mother of four, is a nurse. Between March and April 2016, she was in the workhouse. Held on a warrant on a felony theft charge — she had accepted unemployment benefits longer than state law allows — Bordeaux suffered what she says were unspeakable conditions in the workhouse. Her stay there contributed to later homelessness. She lost her nursing license. It turns out, her charge was later determined unconstitutional. With the help of the state public defender office and nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders, she rebuilt her life, got a job, got her nursing license back, cleared her record and became one of the leading advocates for the Close the Workhouse movement.

So pardon her if she gets a little offended — OK, a lot offended — when Krewson and Edwards say the conditions at the workhouse have significantly improved.

“There are people we are still bailing out who are seeing all the same things I saw three years ago,” Bordeaux says.

Those “same things” are laid out in a federal class action lawsuit filed by the ArchCity Defenders in late 2017. That lawsuit — which is currently in mediation — alleges many of the same decrepit conditions outlined in other federal lawsuits decades ago.

“On any given day, detainees in the jail must endure infestations of rats, snakes, cockroaches, and other insects,” the complaint alleges, “extreme temperatures ranging from stifling heat in the summers to frigid cold in the winters, inconsistent and inadequate provision of medical care and mental health treatment, poor air quality and proliferation of mold caused by the jail’s lack of ventilation and inadequate sanitation, overcrowding … These conditions not only violate the United States Constitution, but also run afoul of the most basic standards of human decency.”

Edwards calls references to past conditions at the workhouse — apparently even those from a couple of years ago — a “false narrative.”

“It’s not an inhumane facility,” he says. He told the producers and reporters with Black Entertainment Television’s docuseries “Finding Justice” something similar. But when they asked for a tour of the facility, Edwards declined:

“I will not permit you guys to take cameras into our facility,” he said. “That won’t happen.”

Edwards offered me a tour. I plan to take him up on it, but first, I have another suggestion:

How about the first female mayor in the city’s history finds a way to gather all the other women who are advocating for change at the workhouse, and tour the facility together? How about a meeting of the minds among Krewson, Jones, Nasheed, Gardner, Fox, Bordeaux and the two Greens? Because beyond Edwards’ bombast, is the simple truth that Krewson’s position might not be that far from theirs.

“We don’t want to run two jails,” the mayor said last week, in the same meeting at which Edwards said the opposite. “We want to not need to.”

That sounds like a political opening not far removed from the one suggested by Darlene Green in the letter that spurred Krewson to action: “A roadmap to closing MSI is achievable,” Green wrote. “This effort will take leadership and collaboration — across multiple departments and jurisdictions.”

The time for collaboration has come. Credit whomever fits your political fancy, but Bordeaux knows the movement she helped spark has lit a fire.

“The public support for closing the workhouse is at an all-time high,” she says. “They’re feeling the heat.”

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