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Mayor says St. Louis inmates better off at workhouse than in distant rural jails

Mayor says St. Louis inmates better off at workhouse than in distant rural jails

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St. Louis Workhouse

The St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as the workhouse. (Chris Kohley, ckohley@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS — Three weeks after an unmet target date for closing the city workhouse, Mayor Lyda Krewson on Wednesday said it’s a better option for city pretrial detainees than three rural jails under consideration as possible alternatives.

“We believe that where the detainees are housed now is, in most cases, better than where they would be if they were out of the city of St. Louis,” the mayor told other city leaders.

Thus, she said, she and corrections officials aren’t proposing a contract “at this time” to move some prisoners from the workhouse, which formally is known as the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.

Krewson, at a meeting of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, said talks are continuing with a detention center in Kentucky about a possible eventual transfer there of some workhouse inmates.

A mayoral spokesman after the meeting disclosed that the jail is in Simpson County, near the Kentucky-Tennessee line.

Krewson said jails in two south-central Missouri counties — Ozark and Douglas — also had expressed interest lately in being paid to house some St. Louis prisoners. The city has been unable to find available space in a jail elsewhere in the metro area.

She also has said previously that closing the workhouse would result in overcrowding at the main city jail downtown, requiring some detainees to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

Krewson didn’t elaborate Wednesday on her decision not to submit transfer contracts now to the board, the city’s top fiscal body. But at a board meeting last month she cited expensive transportation costs and said access would be difficult for family members and attorneys of detainees, who are held as they await trial.

The Kentucky facility is a drive of 4½ hours from St. Louis, and the two Missouri counties are 3½-to-4 hours away.

The Board of Aldermen last summer passed an ordinance directing the city corrections director to prepare a plan to close the workhouse by Dec. 31. That followed several years of lobbying by criminal justice activists who cited substandard conditions and other issues.

Krewson had argued against a shutdown during most of her mayoral tenure, saying it was still needed and that conditions there had improved. However, she signed the ordinance while saying closing by Dec. 31 might not be feasible.

Last week, the Board of Aldermen gave first-round approval to a bill putting a nonbinding question about workhouse closure before voters at the April 6 election.

Longtime advocates of a shutdown complain that the administration is dragging its feet on closure and that a referendum would add to the delay. They call for jailing fewer people by overhauling bail procedures and reducing pretrial detention.

As of Wednesday, Krewson said the workhouse had 174 prisoners and the city’s main jail downtown had 602. She said between 90 and 100 were moved from the main jail to the workhouse following disturbances in recent weeks.

The mayor hasn’t said whether she would sign the bill calling for a referendum.

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