The debtors’ jail where those locked inside lived among rats and roaches is finally set to close after recent mass anti-racism protests
It has been called an “unspeakably hellish” extension of a racist and classist criminal justice system where those locked up inside live with rats, roaches and black mold.
Known as the Workhouse, the medium security institution in St Louis, Missouri, has gained a reputation as a notorious debtors’ jail, where incarceration was used for decades as an answer to minor technical and fine-related violations, and where large bond fees were extracted from many people detained pre-trial.
Yet this month, galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement and mass anti-racism protests that reignited after the police killing of George Floyd, Close the Workhouse campaigners are celebrating. On 17 July, the St Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed legislation to close the jail by year’s end.
“Today, there’s less than 90 people inside,” Inez Bordeaux, an organizer at ArchCity Defenders, said. “It’s clear that no one can say the Workhouse, this hellhole, is still needed.”
Bordeaux was formerly incarcerated in the Workhouse in 2016 after a technical probation violation – an error in the system left her with the task of reporting to a parole officer who had long since left the force. Bordeaux, a registered nurse and mother of four, was legally innocent but she was being detained pre-trial because she couldn’t afford her $25,000 bail. She was deemed lucky to get out after just a month.
When the Guardian visited two years ago, 575 people were being held inside – 98% of whom had been caged pre-trial and 90% of whom were Black, despite Black people making up fewer than 50% of the city’s population.
Once inside, people were held an average of 10 months. The time inside routinely dismantled any previously achieved stability.
The dramatic decrease in detainees over the last two years is due to the sustained effort of the Bail Project, which pays bail for people in need, “reuniting families and restoring the presumption of innocence” to combat mass incarceration.
“Since January of 2018, around 3,500 detainees in the city have been bailed out,” said Michelle Higgins, a Close the Workhouse organizer. “That’s it, they are literally emptying the jail cells of the city. It’s been an undeniable success.”
But a few years ago, when the campaign began, support among elected officials to close the facility was scarce. “At first three alderpersons [out of 28] supported it, and then when I came on board last year, we were at 11,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer for the campaign.
The overwhelming support today is a testament to the strategy that organizers at ArchCity Defenders, Action St Louis and the Bail Project adopted, Shepherd added.
“I think it was really important to be working multiple angles at the same time. We needed the votes to shut it down, but we’ve been bailing people out and doing public education in the meantime.”
With the numbers inside decreasing, the campaign built support on the outside.
“In St Louis, we spend zero dollars on our unhoused family, there are no homeless shelters, no domestic violence shelters, no full-time treatment centers for people dealing with substance abuse,” Bordeaux said. “This is what we mean when we talk about re-envisioning public safety. How else could all this money to jails be allocated?”
The bill to close the Workhouse includes a planned reinvestment of the $16m the city was spending annually on the jail. Shepherd said that’s the next focus for the campaign. “Now it’s time to bring communities together from the places most damaged by the carceral system here and see how they want this money redistributed; it’s the participatory budgeting aspect.”
The recent wave of support behind calls to defund the police and reallocate resources to services such as mental health and social care projects only aided the momentum built over years in St Louis to close the Workhouse, Bordeaux said.
“Our organizing focus on the budget as a moral document hasn’t changed,” Bordeaux said, “it’s just been brought to the forefront in the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder.”
Bordeaux added: “The goal ultimately is to have reconstructed the entire city budget so that it actually takes care of people; takes care of vulnerable communities. If seeing your city’s budget doesn’t radicalize you, I don’t know what will.”
Higgins agreed: “The crime, the real crime in St Louis, is in the budget.”
Organizers in the coalition all abide to the politics of abolitionism.
“When people say defund the police, we need to make it clear that defunding and dismantling the prisons are a part of that – these systems are linked,” Shepherd said.
“When we close the Workhouse, it’s not just about the Workhouse. It’s an attack on the entire system of incarceration and pre-trial detention in this country.”
Organizers in the coalition are celebrating the passage of the legislation, but note that there is more work to be done.
In a recent statement, Mayor Lyda Krewson questioned how realistic it was to have the jail closed by 31 December. But Shepherd said, “The statement didn’t faze us, it will never be the ‘right’ time for Lyda Krewson.”
The organizers also understand the mayor’s remaining political standing has been drained in recent months. For the better part of July, about 100 to 200 protesters have occupied the front lawn of St Louis city hall, demanding her immediate resignation. Krewson’s stance on the Workhouse was one of the initial galvanizing issues.
“I know this legislation passing is what we’ve been fighting for,” Bordeaux said.
“But I’m saving my full excitement to when the lights in that place are cut off, when the water is shut off, the electricity. Just so I know it closed. And that no one else would have to endure what I endured while I was there.”
Source: The Guardian