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What The St. Louis Mayoral Candidates Would Do To Close The City’s Notorious Workhouse Jail

Tishaura Jones wants to decriminalize offenses and transfer people out of the Workhouse. Cara Spencer wants to end the contract to house federal detainees.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.)

Both candidates vying to become the next mayor of St. Louis have promised to close the Workhouse, one of the city’s notorious jails. But just how that will happen—and how soon it will close—depends on who gets elected April 6.

City treasurer Tishaura Jones has said she would close the Workhouse within 100 days of taking office if elected. Alderperson Cara Spencer has said she believes the jail can be closed before the end of this year. Both say they want to reinvest money saved from the closing into initiatives like job training, substance use programs, and mental health services. 

“The conditions [at the Workhouse] have always been horrendous,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer with Action STL who has also worked with the campaign to close the jail. “Folks are in there legally innocent for a year or longer in hellish conditions, not being tested for COVID, with rats and roaches, and not being fed when they speak out.”

Activists have been pushing to close the Workhouse for years. In 2018, the facility held about 450 people on average, and almost everyone there was awaiting trial. Now, after years of pressure from activists, and policy changes from St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, only about 200 people remain incarcerated at the Workhouse. 

To close the jail, Jones told The Appeal she would work with local prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the city by supporting policies like ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses and expanding diversion programs. Jones also said she would direct the St. Louis Metro Police Department to “prioritize enforcement of violent crime, and set out clear guidelines limiting the enforcement of misdemeanors like loitering, panhandling, and prostitution.”

Jones said she would work with the city comptroller to stop funding the facility, conduct mass vaccinations at both city jails, and transfer any remaining detainees to neighboring correctional facilities. Jones’s campaign did not respond when asked whether she would consider ending the contract to house federal detainees. 

Spencer, meanwhile, told The Appeal that most people held in the city’s jails are there on state or federal charges, not municipal charges. So in order to reduce the Workhouse’s population enough to close it, Spencer said she would prioritize reviewing the city’s contract to house federal detainees and ensuring that people who are incarcerated in the city’s jails aren’t awaiting trial for long periods of time.

In July, the city’s Board of Alders unanimously passed a bill to close the Workhouse by Dec. 31, 2020. That didn’t happen. Instead, departing mayor Lyda Krewson’s corrections commissioner, Dale Glass, said the bill only required them to make a plan to close the jail by the end of the year, which he said he did. Yet the Workhouse now holds over 100 more people than it did when the bill to close it passed.

Board of Alders president Lewis Reed has said it would be irresponsible to close the Workhouse now because of COVID-19. But the bill for its closure, which he sponsored, was introduced and passed during the pandemic. This fiscal year, the city is spending about $8 million to keep the Workhouse open.

“Time and time again, folks are treated inhumanely because they’re incarcerated,” said Shepherd. “The new administration needs to really look at our city budget,” they added, noting that St. Louis has spent an outsize portion of its budget on police and jails for years, yet violent crime rates remain high. “Obviously arresting and incarcerating people isn’t working.”

Closing the Workhouse would require reducing its population to zero, which could be done by ending the city’s contract to hold federal detainees, releasing people who are being held pretrial only because they could not afford bail, and moving anyone who cannot be released to another jail.

Those opposed to closing the Workhouse now have said moving people to the city’s other jail, the City Justice Center (CJC), would lead to overcrowding and unsafe conditions. But supporters say the CJC’s population would also be reduced if the city stopped incarcerating people who can’t afford bail and ended the contract to house federal detainees. Data shows that of the 935 people held in the city’s two jails, 34 are there for technical probation violations, while 13 people are being held for misdemeanors and two are confined for ordinance violations. 

“Closing the Workhouse doesn’t mean [all the] people need to be moved from one place to another,” said Madison Orozco, community collaborations associate at ArchCity Defenders. “Cutting that federal detainee contract is one step, examining our pretrial practices is another. … That could help get rid of people who are held in CJC who shouldn’t be there as well.” 

If elected, Jones said she would also expand access to substance use services, fund sobering centers where people struggling with substance use can have a safe and supportive environment to get sober, and support decriminalizing “some crimes committed as a result of drug seeking behavior.” Jones has said she wants to reinvest money saved from closing the Workhouse into substance use programs and other “community focused solutions to crime.”

Organizers who spoke with The Appeal said they plan to continue fighting to close the Workhouse by pressing the city to stop funding the facility during this year’s budget negotiations. Jones told The Appeal in an email that she plans to “work with the St. Louis City Comptroller to zero out the budget for the Workhouse and close it for good.”

Jones also said she will appoint a new public safety director who is committed to closing the Workhouse and “who will inform Corrections Commissioner Glass that, starting on July 1st (the first day of the FY21-22 budget) he no longer has a budget to operate the workhouse.”

By supporting policies that reduce the jail population, Jones said she hopes to get the  numbers down to a level where it would be safe to transfer any remaining detainees to neighboring correctional facilities. To avoid creating a dangerous situation by overcrowding jails during the pandemic, Jones said she would “conduct a mass vaccination and education campaign in the city jails” and “negotiate a contract with a correctional facility within 25 miles of the city that meets basic federal standards to transfer vaccinated detainees we are unable to house at the City Justice Center.”

Spencer, on the other hand, believes that ending the federal detainee contract would do more to reduce the city’s jail population.

“Our Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is a reform prosecutor,” Spencer told The Appeal. “Everyone who is in the Workhouse is there at her recommendation and I trust that she’s not putting people there without a substantive reason.”

While state law requires the city to hold people on state charges, Spencer said, the federal contract is voluntary.

“Both the state and federal governments reimburse a fraction of the cost of housing people, which means the city is subsidizing the housing of both sets of folks waiting for trial to the tune of tens of millions of dollars,” Spencer told the St. Louis American, adding that eliminating the federal contract will free up enough space to close the Workhouse and save the city money.

Spencer said that she believes the Workhouse can be closed before the end of the year, but cautioned against rushing the process given the recent issues at the city’s other jail. 

“We need to close the Workhouse because it’s not only harming the people who are inside every day, it’s really harming the community of St. Louis as a whole,” said Orozco from ArchCity Defenders. “Millions of dollars are being held hostage. That money could be used to help St. Louis thrive. … We need to move forward with transformative change, not just stick with what is because that’s the way it is and the way it’s always been.”