Close the Workhouse | St. Louis Public Radio

Close the Workhouse

St. Louis Alderman Dan Guenther, D-9th Ward, poses for a portrait in the St. Louis Public Radio studios on March 11, 2020.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Dan Guenther, the first-term alderman for St. Louis’ 9th Ward, is the latest guest on the Politically Speaking podcast.

Before being elected in 2017 to represent the ward, which covers part of seven south St. Louis neighborhoods including Soulard, Benton Park and Kosciusko, Guenther worked for Operation Brightside and with former Mayor Francis Slay’s Office of Sustainability.

He says his three years on the Board of Aldermen have been “quite an adventure.” 

American Artist is an interdisciplinary artist whose work considers black labor and visibility within networked life. Film still from 2015.
Courtesy of American Artist and the Queens Museum

Artists are no strangers to political activism. Through captivating installations, they’re able to visualize complex themes that resonate with movements and social causes. 

This weekend, a new exhibit at the Luminary Center for the Arts, “America’s Mythic Time,” will take it to the next level with an unusual partner — ArchCity Defenders. But the collaboration isn’t really that far out. 

The two organizations have worked together closely for years, co-sharing spaces and political expertise, such as when the Cherokee Street-based gallery hosted ArchCity’s Pro Se STL event. Their pro se guides are used to help people learn how to interact with police to represent themselves in court. 

Activists with the Close the Workhouse campaign call on Mayor Lyda Krewson to close down the jail as she arrives for a segment on St. Louis on the Air.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

What started out as a viral video exposing the poor conditions detainees were facing inside St. Louis’ Medium Security Institution — also known as the Workhouse — has turned into a three-year-long effort to shut it down. In 2017, activists and civil rights organizations Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders and Bail Project St. Louis began pursuing calls to action to close it. 

The facility largely houses people who have not been convicted of a crime and cannot afford bail. Conditions inside have reportedly included black mold, dangerously high and low temperatures, moldy food and “rats as big as cats.” 

The city has since invested in renovating the facility, but this week, the Close the Workhouse campaign announced its relaunch with a newly updated report. And now, it has a new ally.

Inez Bordeaux, an organizer with Close the Workhouse, present's the group's new report during a press conference at City Hall on Jan. 14, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Four activist groups say they have found a way to close the St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse by the end of this year.

The Close the Workhouse campaign unveiled its plan on Tuesday. The groups behind it say their research shows all of the people accused of state crimes could be held safely at the downtown Criminal Justice Center.

Friday's show included the perspectives of St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards (at left), Close the Workhouse representative Inez Bordeaux (center) and Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

On Tuesday a federal judge ruled that St. Louis jails cannot hold inmates simply because they cannot make bail. That decision came just one day before a press conference this week at City Hall, where Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, joined representatives of the Close the Workhouse campaign in urging city officials to shut down the Medium Security Institution, known as the workhouse.

Cohen joined Inez Bordeaux, who spent about a month incarcerated in the workhouse in 2016, on St. Louis on the Air for a conversation with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jonathan Ahl. Ahl also spoke with the city’s public safety director, Jimmie Edwards, who gave his perspective on the condition of the workhouse, the cash bail system and related topics.

An activist campaign calls on city officials to shut down St. Louis' medium-security jail, commonly known as the Workhouse.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The inmate who died at St. Louis' Medium Security Institution (MSI) in August died of an accidental fentanyl overdose, the autopsy report shows.

Louis L. Payton, 48, was the latest inmate to die at the facility known as the Workhouse this year. He was the fifth inmate to die in custody at a city jail this year, according to records St. Louis Public Radio received in August from the city.

Workhouse protest, July 2017
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Activists will rally Wednesday outside the City Justice Center of St. Louis to launch an effort to shut down the city's Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse.

The Close the Workhouse campaign comes as progressive politicians across the country look for ways to address criminal justice reform and large cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, take steps to reform their court systems. Close the Workhouse organizers hope their work can lead to change in St. Louis.