ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner and a group of St. Louis activists and leaders met with detainees at both St. Louis jails Saturday to witness conditions and highlight efforts at corrections reform.
The tour was another step Jones took in her first week in office toward fulfilling a campaign promise: closing the Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the workhouse, within her first 100 days.
On Wednesday, Jones instructed city budget officials to cut all money for the workhouse from the city spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Jones said Saturday that her interviews with people incarcerated at both the workhouse and the city’s downtown jail, the City Justice Center, confirmed her decision to only have one St. Louis jail.
“People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” Jones said, and referred to her father’s time in prison. “As the daughter of someone who was incarcerated, this is personal for me. This is someone’s father, someone’s mother, brother … grandfather.”
Jones said she was particularly concerned about detainees’ complaints about substandard food including “mystery meat,” and stories of lack of access to medical treatment in the city facilities. She added that detainees told her staff had cleaned up in anticipation of the mayor’s visit.
Bush said they were told stories about human waste on the floor and saw inadequate health care facilities within the jails.
“It was absolutely disgusting,” Bush said.
She described hearing of “utter filth,” trash, bugs and detainees continuing to wear clothing that had been sprayed with mace.
Activist Kayla Reed, executive director of Action STL and a member of Jones’ transition team, spoke Saturday on behalf of activists who have been pushing for years to close the workhouse.
“People are being held for months before they’re indicted, for months before they see a judge, for months before they have any sort of relief to get back to their families,” Reed said. She added that she was encouraged by Jones’ action to close the jail.
Circuit Attorney Gardner said she hopes to work with Bush and Jones to reform the system, but the pandemic has delayed trials and added to the crowding of the city jails.
“We have to look at public safety,” Gardner said. “Not everyone is the worst offender, but we have people who commit violent crimes and we have to understand that they have a right to a jury trial as well as victims have a right to be heard in court.”
The spending plan to cut funding for the workhouse is pending final approval by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment before it goes to the Board of Aldermen. The plan includes $1.4 million to house some city inmates in rented detention space in other jurisdictions that could handle overflow from the city’s remaining jail.
Jones has spoken with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page about the possibility of using cells in the St. Louis County Jail to handle some of the overflow.
Jones’ predecessor, former Mayor Lyda Krewson, had said complaints about the workhouse were out of date and that the facility had undergone significant improvements in recent years.
Under aldermanic pressure, Krewson had begun the process of gradually closing the complex. That process stalled when Krewson told the estimate board in January that the only available cells corrections officials could find were in rural counties in south central Missouri and Kentucky.
Earlier, she had also cited expensive transportation costs and said access would be difficult for family members and attorneys.
Ongoing problems at the city’s other jail, the Justice Center, had also been a barrier to closing the workhouse under Krewson.
A malfunctioning locking system has contributed to a series of disturbances in the jail, including two this year when inmates took control of sections of the jail, broke windows and threw items onto Tucker Boulevard downtown.
The estimate board has approved shifting $5.5 million in the current year’s budget to continue repairing the malfunctioning locks at the main jail and damage from the riots, bringing the total to $7 million. Overall, the jail work will cost $13.5 million, officials say.
One floor has had its locks replaced, but “they still have more work to do,” Jones said Saturday.
Jones said in a statement Wednesday that the city would save about $7.8 million by closing the workhouse. She aims to use $1.3 million of that on a new city Division of Supportive Reentry that would fund social workers, mental health services, child care and other services aimed at helping detainees return to society.
Jones’ spending plan directs $300,000 to double the budget for a city oversight panel on the main jail downtown that was formed this year, and sets aside $150,000 for city planners to study new uses for the workhouse.