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Messenger: Close the Workhouse becomes key issue in 2021 mayoral campaign

Messenger: Close the Workhouse becomes key issue in 2021 mayoral campaign

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Protesters renew demands to close St. Louis' workhouse jail

Jae Shepherd, left, and Inez Bordeaux, organizers with Close the Workhouse, lead a protest demanding the city to shut down its Medium Security Institution, informally known as the workhouse, on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, outside the jail located on Hall Street.  Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

There’s a word for the amount of effort the administration of Mayor Lyda Krewson put into closing the city’s medium security jail known as the workhouse, which on most days this year has held fewer than 100 detainees.


That’s what one of the leaders of the Close the Workhouse movement called it after I showed her the letter that corrections commissioner Dale Glass sent to area jails asking for help. The letter was sent July 27, a little more than a week after the Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a bill asking the mayor’s office to prepare a plan to close the workhouse by the end of 2020, and maintain just one jail, the City Justice Center.

The letter, which I obtained in a Sunshine Law request, is three sentences. It was sent to an email list of county jail administrators in Missouri. Most of them didn’t respond.

“The City of St. Louis, Division of Corrections, is inquiring about the feasibility of housing City prisoners in other Missouri jails,” wrote Glass. “We are requesting that you respond to the email address below with your available space and estimated cost per day. Please forward this inquiry to any other facilities in your county.”

So when Glass later, in two reports to the Board of Aldermen, pleaded that there was just no room at the inn, it’s not like he or his bosses, including Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, exactly put on the full-court press.

“It’s like the bare minimum to satisfy what the ordinance lays out,” Close the Workhouse activist Kayla Reed told me after I showed her the letter. “That letter just reinforces that this administration isn’t interested in moving toward one jail.”

Indeed, Edwards in particular never wanted to close the workhouse, which has been subject to numerous civil rights lawsuits over the years, including one that is ongoing. There was no attempt to move the federal detainees — currently more than 200 of them — in the City Justice Center, to make room for the remaining few dozen detainees being held at the workhouse. There was no clear attempt to seek release of those folks being held pretrial on misdemeanors or ordinance violations, of which the city’s daily inmate county regularly reports there are several.

Instead, the mayor told the Board of Aldermen that it was too hard to do what the aldermen asked her to do, in a bill that Krewson signed. Because she can’t seem to find any solution that reduces jail population to a number she finds satisfactory, she won’t force overcrowding in the City Justice Center, the mayor says, in part because of COVID-19.

The sponsor of close the workhouse bill, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, thinks that’s OK. He voted with Krewson on a measure to delay the closing of the workhouse, and he told me he stands by that vote. “It would be morally and ethically irresponsible to force the closure of the facility at this time; putting the detainees’ health and life at risk just to meet a specific timeline,” Reed said, of the timeline he established. “Advocates of Close the Workhouse must decide what’s more important, the campaign or the health and welfare of the detainees amid COVID-19.”

That’s rich. Reed, who is running for mayor, telling the people who have spent years advocating for the humanitarian release of workhouse detainees, that he is just standing up for their health by keeping them in jail.

The good news for the Close the Workhouse advocates is that two other mayoral candidates continue to believe closing the workhouse is the right thing to do, and could have, and should have, happened in 2020. Treasurer Tishaura Jones, the first of the three favored mayoral candidates to endorse closing the workhouse, back in 2016, said that were she the mayor now, there is no doubt the city would have met the deadline set by aldermen.

“Since the vote in July, we could have been working with personnel to find jobs for the staff, working with the circuit attorney to find out who the nonviolent, pretrial detainees are, and others to see who could be transferred to other facilities,” she said.

Alderman Cara Spencer, who early in the summer pushed a bill to close the workhouse that Reed ignored, also believes the facility could have closed this year. Spencer was the first of the “big three” to announce her run for mayor. “Building trust is key to driving down our skyrocketing violent crime rates,” Spencer says. “Closing the workhouse helps us do that and is both a moral and fiscal imperative. We’ve seen the numbers, ending the federal contract would free up enough space to make St. Louis a one-jail city.”

The 2020 disappointment aside, Close the Workhouse advocates enter 2021 knowing that time, and politics, is on their side. All three of the most prominent mayoral candidates have advocated to close the workhouse.

Two of them appear to really mean it.

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