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Protesters in St. Louis area call for closure of workhouse jail, celebrate dismissal of rioting charges

Protesters in St. Louis area call for closure of workhouse jail, celebrate dismissal of rioting charges

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Protester outside St. Louis' Medium Security Institution

Sarah Watkins, 32, of St. Louis, holds a sign outside the city's workhouse on June 17, 2020. "It's important to me because the workhouse is symbolism of the systemic policies and racism in this city. A lot of people are in this jail just trying to provide for their families. And we want the workhouse to close because those funds that are used to fund the jail could be used to bring people real public safety like housing, education, schooling, mental health. This doesn't help." Photo by Joel Currier, jcurrier@post-dispatch.com

Updated at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday with information from various demonstrations in the St. Louis area.

ST. LOUIS — Protesters in the St. Louis area took to the streets Wednesday for several causes, including renewed demands to close the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.

About 50 people gathered calling for the city to close the institution, broadly known as the workhouse, one of two jails in St. Louis.

Protesters organized by the Close the Workhouse campaign marched along metal barricades lining Hall Street in front of the jail, holding signs and shouting toward police and jail staff who stood guard outside the facility.

It’s the first such demonstration outside the jail since protests have swept the region and country following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Inez Bordeaux, a protest organizer with Arch City Defenders, rallied the crowd, promising to continue making demands daily “until the very living, breathing monument to racism and white supremacy is shut down.”

“We are coming for our people,” Bordeaux told protesters. “The people inside of that building, those are our friends. Those are our neighbors. Those are the people who watch our kids. Those are the people who check us out at Schnucks. Those are the people who cash our checks. That’s who’s in there.”

The protest lasted about 30 minutes before it moved to the steps of City Hall to voice concerns to Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Kayla Reed, executive director of Action STL, said she had a meeting with Krewson on Wednesday about closing the workhouse and received no commitment to shut it down. Reed said her organization will continue to keep pressure on city officials in hopes of getting a resolution passed to cut all funding to the jail.

A spokesman for Krewson sent a statement saying, “We respect the rights of all individuals to gather, protest, and express themselves nonviolently. This morning, we had the opportunity to meet with some of the organizers in order to listen to them and discuss this issue. We don’t believe our interests are mutually exclusive.”

The statement said the city and the mayor have “worked diligently to implement various reforms and reduce the jail population. We’ve also proposed more than $8 million in cuts to the budget for MSI in the (2021) budget. Today, those who the courts have determined should be in custody are being held almost exclusively on serious felony charges.”

Sarah Watkins, 32, of St. Louis, took part in Wednesday’s protest and said closing the jail is important “because the workhouse is symbolism for the systemic policies and racism in this city. A lot of people are in this jail just trying to provide for their families. And we want the workhouse to close because those funds that are used to fund the jail could be used to bring people real public safety like housing, education, schooling, mental health. This doesn’t help.”

City officials have for years resisted closing the jail but have spent more than $5 million since 2017 on upgrades. The city also has closed two floors with cells.

Advocates for closing the jail say more than half the city’s 27 aldermen now support closing the facility. The Close the Workhouse campaign continues to push city leaders to cut funding for the Hall Street facility.

The proposed 2021 city budget now under review calls for workhouse spending to drop next year to $8.8 million from $16 million due to a reduction in the number of inmates held there.

Krewson said on Facebook on Wednesday that she was proposing an amendment to the 2021 budget further cutting funding to the workhouse by $860,000. She said she supports investing the money in a program called the Mobile Crisis Prevention Team that pairs officers with mental health workers.

The jail, which has a capacity of 436 people, held 95 inmates Wednesday, according to city figures. That’s down from 253 as of March 1, before the coronavirus outbreak led to the release of people awaiting charges on less serious crimes.

The Justice Center in downtown St. Louis, with a capacity of 860, held 655 inmates as of Wednesday, up from 649 on March 1.

Other rallies

Later Wednesday, about 25 people rallied for Mike Avery outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Avery, 28, from St. Louis, was arrested May 31 on federal charges over a social media post in which police said he encouraged rioting in the city.

The event, originally planned as a protest against Avery’s charges, turned “celebratory” when protesters learned the charges were dismissed Wednesday, according to a friend of Avery, Jeffery Hill.

Avery walked out of the courthouse after his ankle monitor was removed, giving hugs to waiting supporters. He said he was confused originally about why he was arrested.

“Because all I was doing was exercising my rights,” Avery said. “My objective for most of the posts that I was making was to basically get the men in our city to step up to the plate more and to protect our people in St. Louis — to stop the violence in our community and stand up for something more powerful than themselves.”

Another demonstration was held Wednesday in St. Charles as protesters called for charges against an ex-Florissant police detective seen on surveillance footage striking a suspect with a police SUV on June 2. The former officer, Joshua L. Smith, ultimately was charged with assault, a prosecutor said. The 31-year-old Smith, of Ferguson, turned himself in Wednesday and was released later in the day.

About 30 protesters remained outside the St. Charles County Courthouse complaining of Smith’s $50,000 cash-only bond, arguing it was set too low.

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