Calls to close the St. Louis Workhouse amplified after death of inmate | St. Louis Public Radio

Calls to close the St. Louis Workhouse amplified after death of inmate

Aug 8, 2018

UPDATED at 12:35 p.m. on Aug. 20 with statement from St. Louis Medical Examiner's Office saying the autopsy would take eight to 15 weeks.

Jail-reform advocates are calling conditions at St. Louis' Medium Security Institution into question again after a man collapsed there and later died at a hospital last week.

Police are not identifying the inmate. But a group of people who say they are the former inmate’s relatives told media and local activists the man’s name is Louis Lynn Payton.

“We still don’t know what really happened to my brother, and I want justice for Louis Payton,” Janice Washington said after listing all the ways she and her family had sought information on Payton’s death.

Janice Washington, Louis Payton's sister, speaks about her brother, who died last week at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The jail, commonly called the Workhouse, came under scrutiny last year after a lawsuit against the institution cited inhumane living conditions, including mold and rodents. St. Louis Public Radio reported last year other issues, including problems with medication and deaths.

This most-recent death is not the first at the Workhouse this year. Officials found 30-year-old Andre Jones hanging from a bed sheet in his cell in May of an apparent suicide.

An organization called Close the Workhouse convened the Wednesday news conference at Apostles Church on Evans Avenue in north St. Louis. Activist Michelle Higgins condemned the jail.

“We are here because there must be no more. No more death and dying in a place that claims to be for the purpose of rehabilitation,” she said.

Police report the inmate collapsed at the jail at 12:15 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 2. The man was taken to a hospital where he later died. He was 49. Relatives said they did not believe he had any medical conditions that may have caused the collapse.

Police say the homicide division is investigating what happened, which is standard procedure for all in-custody deaths. St. Louis Public Radio has requested an autopsy report from the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office. Officials said it would take eight to 15 weeks to complete the autopsy. 

Payton’s family members said they were shocked to hear their relative had died. They say they don’t know much else about the circumstances of his death, despite requesting more information from police and the coroner's office over the last few days.

“What happened to him, we don’t know. We don’t know. And, most likely, we won’t ever really know the truth,” relative Celestine Buford told the small crowd.

Buford said Payton had been in jail since January and had a court date coming up. She and other relatives said they did not know why he was in jail, but attributed his death to jail conditions.

City jail records show Payton was arrested on Jan. 25. He was charged with possession of an unlawful firearm. Court records, which spell the man’s middle name “Lyen,” also list marijuana possession among the charges. Records show his next court date was scheduled for a date in October.

The mayor’s spokesman Koran Addo told St. Louis Public Radio Wednesday that city officials are working to make local jails safer and reduce population sizes.

“Over the past 12 months, the city’s jail population has decreased by 12 percent, mostly from the Medium Security Institution. We are also continually looking for ways to keep the facilities up to date,” the statement reads. “A portion of the funds from Prop 1, which the voters overwhelmingly passed this week, will allow us to make upgrades at the facility.”

A fact sheet on the Proposition 1 reports nearly $6.5 million will go to updating corrections buildings.

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.