Text reads: Why has an empty jail in St. Louis become a symbol of grassroots power?

Why an Empty Jail in St. Louis Has Become a Symbol of Grassroots Power

A group of St. Louis activists has made huge progress toward transforming the city’s approach to public safety over the last few years, and a campaign to close the inhumane and racist Workhouse jail was at the heart of this work.

Activists, organizers, and community leaders, many of whom had been directly impacted by the Workhouse, have been working together for years to build a grassroots movement that centers people and communities. Their goal is to dismantle systems of oppression in St. Louis and replace them with community-led solutions that actually address the root causes of violence and crime, keep people safe, and strengthen communities. Can their success be replicated where you live? Let’s find out.

What Is the Workhouse Jail?

The current Workhouse was built in 1966, but it takes its nickname from an earlier jail, built in the 1850s, where people who couldn’t pay their fines were forced to work long grueling shifts in a quarry, breaking stones with a sledgehammer.

The newer Workhouse was awful in its own way. People who served time in the Workhouse complained for decades about its “unspeakably hellish” conditions—mold, rats, insects, extreme heat, and guards who set up “gladiator style” fights between those being held there.

The Workhouse was a “hopeless” place. It upended lives, tore apart families, and devastated communities of color.

  • Thousands of people were incarcerated there over its 50+ years of existence
  • 90% of the people held there were legally innocent—people who had not been found guilty of a crime but were stuck waiting to see a judge simply because they didn’t have enough money to pay bail 

  • Black people make up about 47% of the St. Louis population but represented 90% of the Workhouse population

The Power of Grassroots Organizing

Activists and St. Louisans impacted by the jail came together in 2018 to form the Close the Workhouse coalition. Their powerful advocacy pushed the Board of Aldermen to vote unanimously to close the jail—but the mayor at the time refused to act. So what did activists do? They campaigned for a mayor who WOULD act. And she won!

That led to the Workhouse being closed and defunded from the city budget in 2020.

Reenvisioning The Workhouse

The grassroots movement that closed the Workhouse, elected a new progressive mayor, and just recently elected three more progressives to the Board of Aldermen is now working to reenvision the Workhouse—transforming the site from a place of harm into a source of healing for the community.

  • How might that land be used to benefit St. Louis’s communities of color?
  • What can be done to both honor those impacted by the Workhouse and help transform the racist criminal legal system that created it?

We Need to Prioritize Helping People

Reenvisioning the Workhouse is just one part of DRT (Defund, Reenvision, Transform), a new initiative to reimagine how St. Louis approaches the root causes of crime and violence—with a focus on putting healing and justice at the center of public safety.

Right now, St. Louis’s priorities are upside down:

  • The St. Louis General Fund budget spends $172 million on police and only $1.7 million on Human Services
  • St. Louis has 25 times more employees working in policing than working in Human Services

It’s Time to Invest in Communities

Like most cities, St. Louis’s massive spending on ineffective policing results in insufficient investments on things that actually promote the health and safety of people and communities:

  • Affordable housing
  • Public education

  • Mental health programs

  • Job training

  • Violence-prevention programs

Studies show investing in these services makes people safer. With progressives now leading the city, activists expect to see a change in St. Louis’s priorities.

Making Change Happen Where You Live

By closing the Workhouse jail and electing new political leadership that puts equity and justice ahead of policing and incarceration, the people of St. Louis have shown the rest of the country how progressive change can happen.

St. Louis community leaders, with years of hard work and organizing, have managed to transform the empty Workhouse from a symbol of racism and injustice into a beacon of hope and progress.

Want change where you live? All you need is a committed group of people who will stand up for justice—and refuse to back down.

Live in St. Louis and want to get involved? Learn more about Reenvisioning the Workhouse here.