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Messenger: Close the Workhouse activists set their sights on another target

Messenger: Close the Workhouse activists set their sights on another target

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Detainees transported from Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse

"Hey, we going downtown," yells one detainee as sheriff's deputies transfer a group of detainees into buses and a van that departed the Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse, and brought them to the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Photo by David Carson,

Inez Bordeaux was crying in the back of the room.

She was upset.

We were at the Deaconess Center in north St. Louis in March 2019 for a panel discussion on the Medium Security Institution known as the workhouse. Three of the four panelists were calling for the workhouse to be closed. District public defender Mary Fox, who now oversees the statewide public defender system — laid out the plan that two years later, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones would follow.

“If the city of St. Louis would just get rid of those federal prisoners, there would be room,” Fox said, “There is no need for the workhouse, and you’re wasting your money on it.”

Bordeaux, whom I had written about previously, had been in the workhouse, following a state charge that she stole unemployment benefits, by taking them after she had gotten a new job. She’s a nurse, and an activist with the Close the Workhouse movement. She was crying because of something Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner had said.

Gardner, who was in her role during part of the time Bordeaux was in jail, said she agreed with reducing the city’s jail population, but she couldn’t quite mouth the words “close the workhouse” yet. That would come later. Bordeaux was upset because she saw Gardner as part of the problem, even with her talk of criminal justice reform, putting people in jail (like her) who didn’t belong there.

Two years later, the landscape has changed dramatically. A movement to close a historic symbol of Black oppression in St. Louis transformed itself into a political movement to elect a mayor who could accomplish the task. On Thursday, for the first time since it was built, the workhouse was empty, after the last 57 people were transferred to the City Justice Center.

The workhouse was not closed, however, as a pod will be kept available for contingencies. The city’s main downtown jail is now at 95% capacity while undergoing repairs to faulty locks.

The Close the Workhouse movement didn’t take a victory lap on the historic moment, but instead turned its attention to Gardner.

“We are also calling upon Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner to carefully evaluate cases that are charged and prosecuted and our judges to adhere to the spirit of the bail regulations set forth by the Missouri Supreme Court,” the advocates said in a statement. “We look forward to the day when the Workhouse is fully shuttered and our region stops caging poor, Black residents. Until this happens, we will continue to advocate and organize to build the St. Louis we all deserve.”

Matthew Mahaffey, who replaced Fox as the district defender when she was promoted, has been raising alarm bells about Gardner’s role in jail crowding for months. The Missouri Supreme Court says that people who are charged with a crime and jailed must have a preliminary hearing within 30 days, unless the circuit attorney can show “good cause.” But in case after case, that deadline is missed, because judges allow the good cause to be that Gardner’s office plans to seek an indictment through a grand jury, thus bypassing a preliminary hearing.

What that means, in reality, is that dozens of people sit in the City Justice Center for months without an opportunity to face the charges against them in any meaningful way.

“The only part of the new rule that people seem interested in is how to get around it so that things can continue as they always have,” Mahaffey says.

That isn’t justice. It’s ironic, too. By continuing to follow a unique system established long before she became circuit attorney, whereby nearly every case is charged by complaint, so that a defendant can be immediately arrested, even if she intends to later seek a secretive grand jury indictment, Gardner plays into the wishes of the same tough-on-crime crowd that attacks her at every corner. The judges let her get away with it because they don’t want to be the ones blamed when somebody gets out of jail and later re-offends.

Mahaffey will keep putting the pressure on. So will the Close the Workhouse activists. Eventually, with the support of a mayor who showed that government in the city of St. Louis can work when it stays focused on a task, they will force the sort of change that will continue to send the jail population in the city ever lower.

When it gets low enough, the workhouse will close for good.

And somewhere, Inez Bordeaux will cry happy tears of joy.

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