Inside the Workhouse: Conditions, treatment and time served remain under scrutiny
St. Louis public safety officials want city residents to know people jailed at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution are treated humanely despite allegations to the contrary.
In March, the mayor’s spokesman invited reporters to tour the jail — commonly known as the Workhouse — after weeks of requests for access from local press. A pending lawsuit against the jail by ArchCity Defenders alleges inhumane conditions, including poor ventilation, rodent and insect infestation and problems with black mold.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and Corrections Commissioner Dale Glass fended off the claims in the lawsuit.
“We have no infestation in this facility,” Edwards said. “You will not see any.”
Edwards said the invitation to tour the grounds was a testament to the jail maintaining an adequate facility to house inmates.
He said inmates were also treated with “dignity and respect” when pressed about allegations of mistreatment, including not receiving adequate access to medication and health care.
Health Service Administrator Lacinda Jones says five or six Workhouse medical staffers each attend to up to 10 patients daily, treating ailments such as fractures and chronic health problems. Jones said at times inmates claimed to experience bug bites.
“We treat them for what we see. And if they come down and they have abscess, we treat it as such,” Jones said. “We can’t determine if it’s any type of bite.”
Sherman Brown said he had a life-threatening experience at the jail. Despite medical staff at the jail detailing treatment inmates receive, including for mental health, Brown said he was denied his usual medication.
The 55-year-old says he takes about 10 different pills for a number of issues, including high blood pressure, nerve pain, stomach ulcers and psychiatric medicine. He said the jail didn’t give him his prescribed medication right away. Instead, he said he was prescribed a different drug.
“The medicine was hurting me, making me feel like I has having a heart attack,” Brown said. “I couldn’t breathe. I was sweating real, real, real hard. My legs and arms was hurting.”
Brown believes what officials have shown the public and the news media is not the full picture. During the recent tour, reporters were not allowed into any of the dorms. That’s where Brown says a lot of the problems are, including the mold issue.
“They came in there, with their little paint crew, moved everybody out of the cell they was in ... they moved us over to “C” dorm, and they had the painters come in and paint over all the mold that’s around the catwalk,” Brown said, adding, “Did you see the big rat traps?”
(This reporter did not see any rat traps on the tour).
Brown was released from the Workhouse in February after a month of pretrial detention on unpaid traffic tickets, he said. It was not his first time there.
Time behind bars
Glass said the overall jail population at the Workhouse and the City Justice Center has decreased from nearly 2,000 to about 1,200 in the last five years. He said the jail aims to reduce reentry through education, mental health, employment and substance abuse programs. Nearly all of the people housed at the Workhouse are awaiting a trial.
It is the large number of pretrial detainees in city jails that is problematic for defense lawyers who question conditions at the Workhouse.
The ArchCity Defenders lawsuit against the jail alleges conditions “violated their [detainees'] right to human dignity and to be free from cruel and unusual pretrial detention conditions under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Lawyers allege city jails continue to be overcrowded. But jail authorities said there are 545 people at the workhouse; there is capacity for 1,138 inmates.
More than 1,200 people were detained at the two city jails, according to the city’s January assessment of the Corrections Division. Jail records obtained by St. Louis Public Radio dating back to June 2017 show most people have been jailed on felony charges, though records do not specify which felonies.
January records show the average length of stay for people detained on felony charges was more than 230 days. People with parole violations averaged the longest time spent in jail, at 250 days. These numbers are similar to previous months recorded.
Pretrial detention under scrutiny
Municipalities across the country are looking for methods to make pretrial detention fairer and more efficient. University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal justice professor Beth Huebner said financial barriers impede release of low-level offenders who can’t afford bail. For example, Brown couldn’t pay his $1,000 bail.
“Pretrial detention can affect you in terms of the criminal case and in terms of your life course, as well as in terms of employment and family relationships,” Huebner said.
She leads a team focused on St. Louis County jail reform. Its goal is to create methods that reduce jail population.
For example, someone detained on a minor probation infraction might be detained pretrial for 90 days before the project started, Huebner said. Now, “we move them out in 10 days, and we provide individual services in the community like housing and substance abuse treatment to help them be successful in the long term.”
Of the total number of detainees jailed in city jails, 1,064 of them were black men, eight times the number of white men.
Police must obtain a warrant to hold a suspect for longer than 24 hours in Missouri, a policy that has also come under scrutiny. Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys President Amy Fite says that while prosecutors make suggestions on how long someone could stay in jail before trial, bond types and pretrial detention lengths are ultimately determined by a judge. Fite said other factors besides not affording bail can play a part in pretrial detention, such as showing up to court.
“You have issues with, 'Are they going to continue to commit more crimes?' Is that person also a threat to themselves, from the standpoint of the behavior that they’re engaging in creates not only an issue for our community at large, but a potential issue for that person’s safety and well-being?” she said.
Advocates who say the jail is treating detainees unfairly and inhumanely want the facility closed and have asked the court to release pretrial detainees and relocate convicted inmates, something the city does not appear prepared to do.
Former Workhouse detainee Brown has a message for officials at every level of the justice system:
“You can’t just put a human being in this building because this guy is locked up for whatever reason it may be,” Brown said. “You can’t just put them in a condition that’s just not livable.”
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.