July 17, 2020
Our partners at the Close the Workhouse Coalition have been working for years to close down St. Louis’s infamous Workhouse jail. A “hopeless,” awful place, the Workhouse has stood as a symbol of injustice and racial inequity for generations. Until now.
On Friday July 2nd, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen introduced a bill to defund the Workhouse and invest the funds earmarked for its operations in community programs. The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously today to pass the bill, requiring that the city come up with a plan to close the Workhouse by no later than December 31st, 2020! Now the millions of dollars that St. Louis spent on the jail every year can go toward efforts that divert people from a criminal justice system that criminalizes Black and Brown skin and discriminates against the poor.
This is a huge victory for community building and criminal justice reform in St. Louis—and we think it can serve as a model for every town or city in the US that’s looking to strengthen communities by ending mass incarceration and money bail. As we’ve seen after the murder of George Floyd, when people mobilize and demand an end to a brutally racist system, change comes.
Why the Workhouse Matters
America leads the world in putting people behind bars. By a lot. Mass incarceration has filled prisons and jails from coast to coast for decades, and this racist, ineffective system’s worst qualities have all been on display at the Workhouse.
- Most people who were held at the Workhouse hadn’t been convicted of anything: they were there only because they were awaiting trial or couldn’t afford to pay bail.
- Black people make up 47% of St. Louis’s population, but 90% of the jail’s population.
- St. Louis had been spending about $19 million every single year to keep the Workhouse running.
- Overall, 40% of the St. Louis budget goes to police and jails—and only .3% to health and human services.
Yes, the Workhouse came to be seen as a symbol of injustice, but it’s also a real place that causes real suffering. Our friend Inez Bordeaux described the conditions there: “There’s black mold growing on the walls...It's infested with rats and roaches. It constantly leaks. The food looks like something you wouldn't give to an animal.”
Now that the Workhouse is going to be closed by the end of the year, we hope that the people and communities it damaged can begin to heal. Taking the millions of dollars that St. Louis spent on the jail annually and using it to help people and rebuild neighborhoods would be a good start.
The People Made the Difference
Even before today's vote, the Close the Workhouse movement had begun to make a difference. Thanks to the coalition’s advocacy:
- A federal judge ruled last July that people couldn’t be held behind bars only because of an inability to pay bail.
- The number of people locked up at the Workhouse declined drastically between 2018 and 2020, from almost 600 in 2019 to 100 as of this writing.
- The Workhouse budget had already been slashed from $16.3 million to $7.6 million for the 2020 fiscal year (before it was eliminated entirely by the Ways and Means committee).
This is what happens when people demand to have their voices heard.
A Model for the Rest of the Country
This victory was a long time coming. It was built from the ground up over many years—the direct result of people like you showing up at Board of Aldermen meetings, calling representatives, writing letters, waving signs, organizing, strategizing, and never giving up. Most of all, the movement’s success, much like the success of the huge protests against police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd, sends a clear message to communities all over the country that are hoping to effect change: Listen to and learn from the people on the front lines, the people who have been locked up, dismissed, and marginalized by the system.
Today, we all should celebrate what just happened in St. Louis. And tomorrow we need to get to work in our own hometowns to invest in people and communities, end mass incarceration and money bail, and transform the criminal justice system!
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