‘The Workhouse’: activists celebrate decision to close ‘hellish’ St Louis jail | US prisons

It has been called an “indescribably infernal” extension of a racist and classicist criminal justice system in which those locked inside live with rats, cockroaches, and black mold.

Known as the Workhouse, the middle security institution in St. Louis, Missouri, has built a reputation as a notorious debtors’ prison, where incarceration was used for decades in response to minor technical and fine violations, and where high borrowing fees were extracted jailed by many people before the trial.

But this month, Close the Workhouse activists are celebrating, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement and mass protests against racism that reignited after the police murder of George Floyd. On July 17, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed laws to close the prison until the end of the year.

“There are fewer than 90 people in the house today,” said Inez Bordeaux, organizer at ArchCity Defenders. “It is clear that no one can say that the workhouse, this hellhole, is still needed.”

Bordeaux was incarcerated in the workhouse in 2016 after violating technical probation. Due to a bug in the system, she was given the task of reporting to a probation officer who had long since left the company. Bordeaux, a nurse and mother of four, was legally innocent but was jailed in court for unable to afford her $ 25,000 bail. She was lucky enough to get off after just a month.

When the Guardian visited two years ago, 575 people were detained inside – 98% of them were detained before the trial and 90% were black, although blacks make up less than 50% of the city’s population.

Once inside, people were held for an average of 10 months. Time inside routinely dismantled any stability previously achieved.

The dramatic decline in detainees over the past two years is due to the ongoing efforts of the Bail Project, which pays bail for people in need, “reunites families and restores the presumption of innocence” to combat mass incarceration.

“Around 3,500 prisoners have been rescued in the city since January 2018,” said Michelle Higgins, organizer of Close the Workhouse. “That’s it, they’re literally emptying the city’s prison cells. It was an undeniable success. “

A few years ago, when the campaign began, there was little support from elected officials for the facility’s closure. “First three alders [out of 28] I supported it and when I got on board last year we were at eleven, ”said Jae Shepherd, campaign organizer.

The overwhelming support today is testament to the strategy that organizers of ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis and the Bail Project have adopted, Shepherd added.

“I think it was really important to machine several angles at the same time. We needed the votes to shut it down, but we’ve since saved people and done public education. “

As the numbers inside decreased, the campaign built outside support.

“In St. Louis, we spend zero dollars on our unhodged family, there are no homeless shelters, no housing for domestic violence, no full-time drug abuse treatment centers,” Bordeaux said. “That’s what we mean when we talk about redesigning public safety. How else could all this money go to prisons? “

The workhouse closure bill includes a planned reinvestment of the $ 16 million the city spent annually on the prison. Shepherd said that was the next focus of the campaign. “Now is the time to bring the communities together in the places that have been most damaged by the carcinogenic system and see how they want to redistribute that money. It’s the participatory budgeting aspect. “

The recent surge of support behind calls for police relief and reallocation of resources to services such as mental health and welfare projects has only had the workhouse shutdown momentum built up over the years in St. Louis supports, said Bordeaux.

“Our organizational focus on the budget as a moral document has not changed,” said Bordeaux. “It just came to the fore in the riot after the murder of George Floyd.”

Bordeaux added: “The ultimate goal is to reconstruct the entire city budget so that it actually takes care of the people. cares for vulnerable communities. If seeing your city’s budget doesn’t radicalize you I don’t know what will. “

Higgins agreed, “The crime, the real crime in St. Louis, is on the budget.”

The organizers of the coalition all adhere to the policy of abolitionism.

“When people say to defuse the police, we need to make it clear that defunding and dismantling the prisons are part of it – these systems are interconnected,” Shepherd said.

“When we close the workhouse, it’s not just about the workhouse. It is an attack on the entire system of detention and pre-trial detention in this country. “

Coalition organizers celebrate the passage of the law, but note that more work remains to be done.

In a recent statement, Mayor Lyda Krewson questioned how realistic it would be to close the prison by December 31st. But Shepherd said, “We weren’t concerned about the statement, it will never be the ‘right’ time for Lyda Krewson.”

The organizers also know that the mayor’s remaining political standing has deteriorated in recent months. In July, nearly 100 to 200 protesters occupied the lawn of St. Louis City Hall, demanding their immediate resignation. Krewson’s stance on the workhouse was one of the first problems with galvanizing.

“I know we fought for this legislation to be passed,” said Bordeaux.

“But I save my excitement when the lights are turned off in this place, when the water is turned off, the electricity. Just so I know it’s closed. And that no one else would have to endure what I endured when I was there. “

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