Activists, former inmates pressure officials to close 'hellish' Miss. jail

A lawsuit alleges the facility is ridden with mold, rat and insect infestations

By Celeste Bott
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS, Miss. — Activists, advocacy organizations and former inmates have joined forces this summer to ramp up pressure on officials to shutter the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, known more informally as the City Workhouse.

In a report released Thursday morning by the Close the Workhouse campaign, organizers make their case as to why St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen should shut down the facility at 7600 Hall Street, which holds roughly 550 people, the vast majority of whom are awaiting trial.

City officials say it isn’t feasible to close an institution that houses hundreds of people facing felony charges but add they are taking steps to reduce the jail population without risking public safety. They’ve also pushed back against recent complaints about jail conditions, offering reporters a tour of the facility in March. The building may be old, said Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards at the time, but it is clearly functional.

The Close the Workhouse report says that contradicts the “unspeakably hellish” conditions former inmates, several of whom are now organizers, experienced while they were inside.

“What we’re talking about isn’t a broken toilet or some mold on one wall. Everyone we’ve talked to who has been in the workhouse echoes the same horror stories over and over,” said Rebecca Gorley, a spokeswoman for the campaign and for ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm.

That sort of testimony isn’t exactly new. Much of the 42-page report is devoted to more than 30 years of controversy surrounding the jail, dating to a lawsuit filed over conditions in 1974. The city was sued again over the jail in 1990.

In 2009, an American Civil Liberties Union report said the jail was overcrowded and unsanitary and that staff and officials allowed inmates to assault each other, ignored sexual harassment and provided negligent medical care. In 2012, guards were accused of setting up gladiator-style fights between inmates.

In November, the city was sued once again, this time by seven former workhouse inmates alleging mold, oppressive heat and rat and insect infestations in the facility, which was built in 1966. The suit, filed by ArchCity Defenders in U.S. District Court, argues that St. Louis officials have ignored the problems for years and seeks a judge’s order that would close the workhouse or fine the city $10,000 per day until problems are fixed.

That lawsuit is pending.

“I say all the time that the workhouse is a hopeless place. When you first walk in, you can feel the hopelessness,” said Inez Bordeaux, who once spent 30 days in the workhouse awaiting a probation violation hearing. “You can feel the desperation.”

But the city’s jail population, including both the workhouse and the Justice Center downtown, is shrinking. It dropped 12 percent in the last year, said Koran Addo, a spokesman for Krewson.

“We are committed to reducing the population in our city’s jails in safe and responsible ways,” Addo said. “We are continually looking for ways to keep the facilities at MSI up to date.”

Krewson also has convened meetings with judges, the circuit attorney’s office and corrections officials to urge them to explore new bail policies and flexibility for certain inmates, such as those only in jail for technical probation violations.

While some in the workhouse are held on high bails because of criminal records or potential flight risk, critics of the jail say most are simply unable to afford even modest bail — and the city’s poor, black residents are usually the ones disproportionately stuck in the troubled facility for months on end.

More people should be released based on their promise to appear in court, the report argues, as pretrial incarceration can lead to the loss of a job, income, housing or custody of children, even if a charge is ultimately dismissed.

The campaign urges Krewson to follow the example of Philadelphia officials, who pledged this year to close one of the city’s decaying jails by 2020.

Gardner, the circuit attorney, could also choose not to prosecute low-level offenses and expand diversion programs, organizers say, or the Board of Aldermen can stop funding the workhouse altogether in the city budget. The money saved would be better spent on things like affordable housing, mental health care or employment and after-school programs, they said.

Organizer Montague Simmons said the first phase of the campaign will be educational, building public support for the jail’s closure. Pointing out how much the $16 million the city spends to incarcerate people not yet convicted of low-level crimes is part of that.

“I think we’ve entered a phase where the public is taking a more serious look at what is happening in their city government and how their money is spent,” Simmons said. “The city is spending millions on a place that hasn’t gotten better.”

The Justice Center, which opened in 2002, has a capacity of 860 people, compared to MSI’s capacity of 1138. A total of 1,297 people are confined in both facilities, according to inmate data on the city’s website.

Dormitory D in the City Workhouse, shown during a tour of facility, formally known as the Medium Security Institution, on Friday, March 16, 2018. Photo by Robert Patrick,

The mayor’s office also cites coming improvements at the workhouse, thanks to funding from Prop 1, a $50 million bond issue voters approved in August. A total of $6.5 million has been earmarked for repairs and upgrades to St. Louis’ correctional facilities, including permanent air conditioning at the workhouse. Temporary units have been placed in the jail since protests erupted during a heat wave last year.

But Simmons says the city hasn’t proved capable of reforming the jail, and its had its chance over several decades.

“This isn’t going to be a campaign that’s just led by the organizations. It’s going to be led by impacted folks, based on their real experience,” Simmons said. “We want to make sure their stories are heard.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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