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Messenger: Krewson administration, aldermen backtrack on Close the Workhouse plan
Tony's Take

Messenger: Krewson administration, aldermen backtrack on Close the Workhouse plan

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Protesters target medium security jail in heat

Inmates inside the St. Louis medium security jail known as the workhouse respond to protesters outside on Friday, July 21, 2017, as about 150 gather to call attention to inhumane conditions at the facility because of the lack of no air conditioning. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@Post-dispatch.com

In 86 pages spread out over two reports, St. Louis Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass spends about two sentences actually doing what the Board of Aldermen asked him to do, which is come up with a plan to close the Medium Security Institution known as the workhouse.

There it is atop his second report, issued last month:

“The task of moving detainees from MSI to CJC is a simple one,” Glass writes. CJC stands for City Justice Center, the city’s more modern jail. “Back up the bus and load it. Drive downtown and unload it.”

The rest of the report, and the one before it, are dedicated to relitigating the battle Glass’ bosses, Mayor Lyda Krewson and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, already lost when the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in July to close the workhouse by the end of 2020.

Here’s how the president of the board, Lewis Reed, described the historic vote on the bill he sponsored after it passed: “This bill will be a catalyst to a defined and organized process to effectively and safely close the workhouse while allowing for the funding of needed resources that are lacking in our community.”

Now, just three months later, members of Reed’s public safety committee, despite their previous votes, are singing a different tune, pointing to Glass’ whitewash of a report to suggest that closing the workhouse might be too hard.

“If you were not aware of what had happened, and that the aldermen had voted unanimously to close the workhouse, you would not have known it watching the public safety meeting last week,” says Inez Bordeaux, one of the key organizers of the Close the Workhouse movement that has been pushing for closure of the long controversial facility. “I was blown away by it.”

The two reports from Glass are a window into Krewson’s long strategy to try to straddle both sides of the workhouse fence. There is a timeline showing the trend lines that give weight to the logic of closing an old facility that has long been subject to federal lawsuits over bad conditions, including one filed by the ArchCity Defenders that is pending.

Indeed, the average jail population in St. Louis has dropped to 798 this year from 1,842 in 2012, for a variety of reasons. Bail reform — much of it pushed by the same activists involved in the Close the Workhouse movement — is a top cause. Krewson wants credit for this, and she deserves some of it, but she seems wary of taking the win that the activists were willing to place in her lap with the bill to close the workhouse that she signed.

That’s because the hard work of continuing to get the jail population even lower so that the workhouse can close — there were only 67 people in the workhouse as of Monday — involves some heavy lifting. There are about 100 federal detainees in the City Justice Center. The city wants them there because it makes more from the federal government for those detainees than other jails in the area do. There are 20 people in the jail on “technical” probation violations, and about a dozen on misdemeanors.

It remains true that like most city jails in America, the bulk of people in the workhouse are being held “pre-trial,” meaning that they have not been found guilty of the charges that keep them behind bars.

Getting the jail down to what Glass says is the preferred number — 665 — in the City Justice Center, which has a capacity of 782, will take some work, and, just like during the COVID-19 releases earlier this year, that likely means letting a few people out of jail who are accused of violent crimes. Glass’ reports were supposed to suggest how to get there, but instead, they simply repeated the old Krewson administration lines about how getting there is too hard.

So now, the Board of Aldermen has a decision to make. It can stand by its unanimous decision, and tell the Krewson administration to fulfill the requirements of the bill it passed, or it can wait for what comes next, and lose yet another round to motivated activists who won the battle once, and aren’t going to go away.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that we have to fight to close the workhouse all over again,” Bordeaux says. “But we will. We have no problem getting back in the streets if that’s what it takes.”

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