St. Louis’ Workhouse jail has been described as a “hopeless” place, but after spending all of June touring the city in support of the Close the Workhouse Coalition, we’re more hopeful than ever that efforts to finally shut it down it will succeed.
And a federal judge’s ruling on June 11 that St. Louis jails can’t hold inmates simply because they aren’t able to pay bail gave a massive boost to the movement.
The St. Louisans we met were excited for change. They know the criminal justice system in St. Louis and around the country is broken. They know it’s racist too. And they can’t wait for the $16 million St. Louis is spending on the Workhouse to be invested in people and communities instead.
The Close the Workhouse Tour
We loved touring St. Louis. Over the course of the month, we scooped a whopping 13,420 scoops of ice cream at 27 separate events, and helped more than 1,500 people to take action to join the movement to close the Workhouse jail.
It was an amazing month. Seemed like everywhere we went, more and more people already knew all about the grim numbers behind the Workhouse jail:
- 90% of the people locked up there haven’t been convicted of anything. The only reason they are behind bars? They can’t afford bail.
- The average number of days these people wind up staying at the Workhouse? 291, or almost 10 months!
- 90% of the people in the Workhouse are Black (despite Black people making up only 47% of the St. Louis population).
The system in St. Louis is obviously broken, and it has been for a long time. Without the energy and activism of the people of St. Louis, it would have just gone on being broken for the foreseeable future. Because of them, because of their vision and commitment to justice, change is on its way.
A Huge Victory in the Courts
Federal Judge Audrey Fleissig stepped up and, in a groundbreaking ruling, essentially mandated that change. She called out St. Louis’ use of money bail and barred officials from holding people in jail just because they can’t afford bail. The movement since the ruling has been astounding: 119 St. Louis residents were released, including 97 from the Workhouse jail and the average bond was reduced from $18,000 to $287.
Countless St. Louisans over the decades have been locked up only because they couldn’t pay bail. As they sat behind bars, day after day, month after month, their families suffered. As they sat behind bars, they lost jobs, they lost homes, they lost hope. They missed out on moments with their families that they’ll never get back.
The judge’s ruling is a reminder that policies are more than words on a page. They affect people and their communities in profound and lasting ways. This ruling shows that “guilty until proven wealthy” has no place in our criminal justice system. She affirmed from the bench what activists and advocates have been arguing for years: poverty is not a crime.
Where We Go From Here
That ruling was a massive victory, but we can’t rest yet, not until all of the legally innocent people locked up in the Workhouse are back home with their families, where they belong.
St. Louis, we’ve already seen what a difference your energy and passion can make. Politicians like Mayor Lyda Krewson are feeling the pressure, so we can’t let up. Now’s the time to call your aldermen, to join those rallies, to send those emails. We need to keep pushing to take that $16 million and invest it in the kinds of human services that will strengthen communities and keep people out of jail in the first place.
We’ve come a long way, but we have more work to do. Are you ready? Together we can close the Workhouse, end money bail, and transform the criminal justice system in St. Louis and all over the country.