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Final day of national prison strike 2018

Kristine Hendrix, activist and vice president of the University School board, reads ten demands out loud to a crowd of more than thirty people who stood in solidarity , outside the City Workhouse in St. Louis on the final day of a national prison strike on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. On Aug. 21, people incarcerated in states across the U.S. stopped working, went on hunger strikes and started boycotting prison stores as part of a nationwide strike that, organizers say, spread to at least 14 states. The strike, which officially ended Sept. 9, is an effort to highlight ten demands drafted by incarcerated people, including demands for immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and an immediate end to "prison slavery." Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green has added her voice to the chorus of local progressive politicians calling for the closure of the city’s Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse, and to consolidate the inmate population elsewhere. The widespread assumption, articulated repeatedly by Democratic candidates before the April 2 local elections, is that most of the inmates are awaiting trial for nonviolent misdemeanors and shouldn’t be held in jail anyway.

“This is probably the time to say: ... What you’ve been hearing perhaps has been exaggerated,” Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told the editorial board on Thursday.

“Two years ago, I didn’t understand what I was talking about, either,” Mayor Lyda Krewson added. They were joined by Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass. Senior city officials insist that the jail population overwhelmingly consists of inmates accused — though not convicted — of serious felonies, and releasing them could pose substantial dangers to the citizenry.

Even though the city has engaged in a concerted effort to reduce the jail population through cooperative programs that provide bail for lower-level, non-violent offenders, they say the numbers of inmates at both the Workhouse and the downtown Criminal Justice Center remain too high to consider closing the Workhouse anytime soon.

The jail population as of last week stood at 1,046, including more than 200 held on federal charges. Federal and local officials say a lack of state financial resources, ambiguity in state laws and inattention to timely prosecution mean some inmates languish far longer than they should. When possible — especially when felonies involve the use of guns — federal authorities say they prefer to step in and prosecute cases, enabling inmates to be processed out of the jail as quickly as possible.

The 53-year-old Workhouse has a long history problems — lack of air conditioning, spotty medical care and inability to control violence. Cockroach infestations are a common complaint.

Krewson said that reductions in the inmate population had enabled the closure of an entire floor in the oldest part of the Workhouse, allowing more inmates to be housed in its more modern facilities.

Glass has insisted that “10 beds does not equal 10 people.” Regulations require that certain inmates such as relatives or co-defendants be separated from each other. Men must have separate facilities from women. All of which means that excess capacity doesn’t necessarily mean space in the Workhouse is going to waste.

The city has partnered with various groups to find alternatives to cash bail, allowing lower-level defendants to be released more quickly on bond with help from a national nonprofit, The Bail Project. The jail’s average daily population has also fallen every year since 2013.

We’re all for criminal justice reform and ensuring that no defendant spends a day longer than necessary in jail. But the most persuasive arguments are those that let the facts speak for themselves.