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‘I am a Human and I Just Ask to Be Treated as One’

A lawsuit challenging cash bail in St. Louis could help close a notorious jail.

prisoners wave shirts outside the windows of the Workhouse prison in St. Louis
Prisoners chant and wave shirts out of their windows during a protest at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, also known as “the Workhouse,” on July 21, 2017.Daniel Shular

When David Dixon was arrested in St. Louis on Jan. 10, he was offered two options: Come up with $30,000 in cash for bail or go to the Workhouse, the city’s “unspeakably hellish” jail.

Dixon, 52, who until recently worked at a car repair shop and at a warehouse, also cares for his paralyzed uncle, who is a Vietnam War veteran, and provides financial support to his two sons. But a bond commissioner didn’t ask him about his ability to pay.

After a two-minute first appearance video call, a judge ordered him to pay $30,000 in cash.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” Dixon told The Appeal.

“For a person in my ability, it was impossible,” he added. “Ain’t no way I can come up with $30,000, let alone $5,000.”

Dixon told the judge he couldn’t pay, so he was sent to a holding cell in a jail adjacent to the court for six days then transferred to the St. Louis’s Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse. There, he endured what he described as “horrible” food, “unsanitary” cells, and freezing cold conditions.

Dixon has high blood pressure and epilepsy and had a seizure during his time at the Workhouse. Guards dragged him to medical where he said he was treated with oxygen and ice cubes. “I am not sure I will make it out of here,” he said in a Jan. 25 declaration he wrote from the jail.  

“I am a human and I just ask to be treated as one,” he added.

Dixon is now a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit by legal aid group ArchCity Defenders and other civil rights groups challenging St. Louis’s use of excessive bail.

The lawsuit could have implications not only for the bail system but also for the Workhouse. The median bond set in St. Louis is $25,000, according to the lawsuit, but the median income in the city is just over $38,000. As a result, roughly 90 percent of people in the Workhouse at any given time are there because they can’t afford to post bail. The average individual spends 291 days in the city’s jail awaiting trial.

The median bond set in St. Louis is $25,000, according to the lawsuit, but the median income in the city is just over $38,000.

Dixon was released on Feb. 5 when Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a national advocacy organization, heard about his situation and spent five days trying to post his bond.

“The bail process in the city and the pretrial detention process more broadly is one that’s really designed to incarcerate people en masse for their poverty and for their inability to put up large sums of money,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

Instead of releasing individuals pretrial and using other effective tools to get them to show up to court, Strode said, law enforcement forces thousands of people to spend long periods of time at the Workhouse, a facility that civil rights organizations are working to shutter. In November 2017, ArchCity Defenders filed a class action lawsuit arguing that St. Louis “condemns hundreds of presumptively innocent people to suffer in unspeakably hellish and inhumane conditions.”

Individuals who have spent time in the Workhouse have told attorneys about rats, snakes, roaches, black mold, and overflowing sewage, said Thomas Harvey, director of the justice project at the Advancement Project National Office. Most of the jail lacks adequate heat and air conditioning, so people are forced to endure extreme temperatures. The ceilings leak, according to court filings, and people often sleep on the ground. The food is bland and often inedible, and individuals are offered inadequate medical care.  

“If I were to use one word, I would just say hell,” said Montague Simmons, campaign lead for Close the Workhouse.

More than 99 percent of people subjected to those conditions are awaiting trial.

“Pretrial detention is not intended to be punishment,” Harvey said. “It’s illegal for it to be punishment. But as part of their punishment, they’re subjected to these inhumane conditions.”

Additionally, the city is accused of failing to conduct hearings into a person’s ability to pay cash bail. Unless an individual can afford private counsel, judges do not hold the first hearing on release conditions until a public defender is appointed, which typically takes four to five weeks, according to the lawsuit.

“You can imagine during those five weeks, they’ve lost their house if they had it,” Harvey said. “They’ve lost their job. They’ve lost their apartment. They’ve become further disconnected from family. Their lives are destroyed or their poverty is further exacerbated.”

If I were to use one word, I would just say hell.

Montague Simmons campaign lead for Close the Workhouse

When someone does come up with enough cash to bail out a friend or family member, the city makes it exceedingly difficult. The clerk’s office only accepts cash — not cashiers checks — so people are required to travel across the city with large sums of money. The office is also only open on weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm.

A representative for the jail did not respond to requests for comment.

While the lawsuit is pending, a coalition of organizations that includes ArchCity Defenders continues to push for the jail to be shuttered through the Close the Workhouse campaign. Since July 2018, activists have held a number of press conferences and rallies. The campaign issued a report in September 2018 with a detailed plan on how the city should go about immediately closing the jail. Harvey said he hopes the campaign can leverage a successful result in the bail litigation to convince lawmakers to shutter the jail permanently.

“The conditions have gotten so out of hand that we think this jail needs to be closed immediately and the money reallocated,” Strode said.

Complaints about conditions in the jail have been consistent for many years. In 2012, seven individuals detained in the Workhouse filed a lawsuit alleging that guards in the jail forced them into “gladiator-style combat” and placed bets on the fights.

“This is not a problem that just cropped up a couple years ago,” Strode said. “This has been decades in the making … and yet the conditions have persisted.”

When Dixon walked out of the Workhouse on Feb. 5 after a judge accepted his $30,000 cash bail, he appeared visibly shaken by his experience, advocates said.

“The level of relief not only on his face but in what he kept saying was overwhelming,” Simmons said. “He’d never wish that on his worst enemy.”

A week later, Dixon said he was still shocked by what he experienced.

“It’s so messed up. The system has failed us.”