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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis To Close Workhouse This Week But Will House Temporary Detainees There

The Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, in St. Louis.
File Photo/Shahla Farzan
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis officials plan to move the last inmates from the Medium Security Institution known as the Workhouse by the end of the week to the downtown City Justice Center. But officials say they could use part of the Workhouse as a detention facility if the downtown jail has too many inmates.

St. Louis officials plan to continue to use the Medium Security Institution known as the Workhouse for some prisoners after closing it by the end of the month.

City officials said Tuesday they will use the Workhouse as a temporary detention site if the St. Louis City Justice Center becomes crowded. Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom told members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that the city would use part of the Workhouse as a temporary holding facility.

“We’re going to do the job of trying to manage the facility better and the number of people in there so we don’t have to have that contingency plan in place,” Isom told members of the board's Public Safety Committee.

The city is moving inmates now housed at the Workhouse to the downtown jail by the end of the week. But one of the pods in the Workhouse could be used to house inmates awaiting court proceedings and those from other jurisdictions who will be transferred, Isom said.

Corrections officials said repairs are being made to locks at the Justice Center that inmates damaged during several uprisings in which they complained about jail conditions and treatment. A couple of the pods that house inmates are being taken offline to make necessary upgrades, Isom said.

The move comes after some Board of Aldermen members criticized the city’s plan and timeline to close the Workhouse. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said she plans to close the Workhouse by July, and the city has started transferring the inmates to the Justice Center. Some aldermen are critical of that effort when the downtown jail is still plagued by crowding and insufficient personnel.

St. Louis Acting Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Carson said moving Workhouse personnel to the City Justice Center will bolster the workforce at the downtown jail, but it will still be understaffed by as many as 40 and be at about 90% of inmate capacity.

“It’s a manageable level because it’s within the capacity that we can oversee,” Carson said. “We’re right at the threshold where we can manage it, but it’s tight.”

Lamya Orr tries to greet a friend who is inside the workhouse from outside the gate.
File Photo/Carolina Hidalgo
Protesters gather outside the Workhouse to call on city officials to close the jail. Activists have long protested the conditions at the Medium Security Institution, with many complaining about conditions there.

Carson said some inmates have been moved to a jail in Clark County, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville. Aldermen Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, and Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, said the city should keep part of the Workhouse open.

“I can support closing a facility if we’re to a point where crime has really plummeted in the city of St. Louis that we just don’t need two facilities,” Boyd said. “But when you look that crime is on the rise, it’s just intuitively not making a lot of good sense to me.”

Isom said the city’s crime rate has gone up over the past few years even with the Workhouse and the City Justice Center remaining open. He said Public Safety officials, police officers, judges and prosecutors aim to prevent jail overcrowding by focusing on homicides and other violent crimes.

“Being very focused I think will one, help the violent crime problem, but also not unnecessarily put people in jail that don’t need to be put in jail,” Isom said.

The Workhouse, St. Louis' Long-Criticized Jail, Is Closing This Week — Sort Of
Listen as reporter Chad Davis discusses this story with host Sarah Fenske.

A union official urged city officials to delay closing the Workhouse until the Justice Center is fully staffed, citing safety concerns for staff members.

“I know the intent is to close [the Workhouse], said Jeff Hantz, a representative of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, which represents some correctional officers. “There are unforeseen circumstances that have happened that have caused damages to those facilities. Until that’s repaired, I think we’re moving way too fast. I think all of my officers would appreciate a safe environment.”

Detainees at the Workhouse and the City Justice Center have long complained about conditions at the Workhouse and the City Justice Center. Jail reform advocates have accused Workhouse staff of inhumane treatment, poor ventilation and insect infestations. City officials have argued that the jail has gone through significant upgrades in recent years, including adding air conditioning units. The city is also involved in a federal lawsuit with former and current City Justice Center inmates that claims officers would regularly abuse them.

“There has been a community groundswell to close the Workhouse,” Isom said. “We are listening to you all and to everyone’s concerns to try and make contingency plans. We’re trying to incorporate all of the different concerns that people have into what is a challenging process moving one facility into another, recovering from a COVID issue and all of the other reforms we’re trying to make.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

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