Photo: Chuck Ramsay

“The reason why these men are in chains in the St. Louis Workhouse is because they are poor. Every lawyer in St. Louis knows this to be a fact. Probably many of them are innocent, but certainly every one of them is ‘broke’. There would be no more chance of a man with money having chains put on him in the St. Louis Workhouse than there would be a of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Has it come to this — that poverty itself has become a crime?” (Post Dispatch, 1905)

For decades, social justice advocates have been fighting to close down the “Workhouse,” an infamous St. Louis jail dating back to the Civil War and known for its dehumanizing conditions, which include crumbling infrastructure and brutal treatment of the inmates held within it.

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But more than that, the jail also exemplifies the cost of St. Louis’ draconian bail system, in which only 4 percent of people charged (pdf) with a state crime are released—compared to 85 percent in Washington D.C., or 60 percent in New York City.

Today, most of the Workhouse inmates sit in jail because they can’t afford to make bail—the building stands, in fact, and in practice, as punishment for being poor, just as it was when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about it at the turn of the century. And the vast majority of those impoverished inmates are black.

But four years after the death of Michael Brown, a groundswell of grassroots activism shaped by the Ferguson Uprising may finally achieve the goal of permanently shutting the Workhouse down.

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As Montague Simmons, a campaign manager in the effort to close down the Workhouse, told The Root, the jail began as a prison camp around the time the Civil War was drawing to a close—and it was always intended to house St. Louis’ most disenfranchised.

“When the facility was first established, it was created in no small part to host folks who were poor and marginalized,” Simmons said, adding that inmates at the camp’s inception were forced to perform tough manual labor, like chopping limestone.

“To this day, the majority of folks that are held there, are held there because they can’t afford to be released,” he said. According to Simmons, about 95 percent of the Workhouse’s inmates have yet to stand trial. And though black people comprise only half of St. Louis’ population total population, they make up 90 percent of the Workhouse’s inmates, according to a campaign to shut down the Workhouse (pdf).

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Compared to other major American cities, St. Louis releases inmates without bail at an alarmingly low rate. On top of that, the average stay in a St. Louis jail is longer than the statewide average for Missouri: People awaiting trial in jail will be detained for an average of 291 days (or nearly 10 months)—100 days longer than the state’s average jail stay.

And then there are the conditions in the Workhouse.

According to Simmons, the jail’s roof has holes large enough for inmates to see the open sky—making rain an issue. People being detained are tasked with emptying out the pools of water that form and live among rats and roaches that infest the Workhouse. In the summer, the heat inside the Workhouse has been described as oppressive.

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The ACLU has also investigated the jail’s hellish conditions, publishing a report in 2009 that outlined rampant abuses, overcrowding, negligence and staff assaults on the people being detained.

Still, conditions at the Workhouse didn’t change. In 2013, a lawsuit accused the jail’s guards of forcing inmates to fight each other in “gladiator-style” combat. And last November, a group of seven inmates filed a lawsuit requesting the jail be closed for good.

One of the plaintiffs, Diedre Wortham, 46, said being in the jail “made me feel like an animal. Like I was worthless.” According to the Post Dispatch, Wortham, who has high blood pressure, didn’t receive medication for her condition until nearly three weeks into her detainment.

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The Workhouse
Photo: Chuck Ramsay

As the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported last month, politicians say they are taking the calls to address the Workhouse’s problems seriously.

A spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said the jail’s inmate population dropped by 12 percent last year.

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We are committed to reducing the population in our city’s jails in safe and responsible ways,” Koran Addo told the paper. “We are continually looking for ways to keep the facilities at [the Medium Security Institution] up to date.”

The mayor has also “convened meetings with judges, the circuit attorney’s office and corrections officials to urge them to explore new bail policies and flexibility for certain inmates, such as those only in jail for technical probation violations,” writes the Post Dispatch. (The Root has reached out to the mayor’s office for comment and will update if there’s a response.)

But reducing the jail population or making some cosmetic changes to the building simply isn’t enough anymore, says Simmons.

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“We’re past reform; it’s a facility that should be closed,” he said.

“We should be embarrassed and ashamed to call this a part of the city government,” said Simmons. “This is outrageous that this still exists.”

Activists are calling for the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office to authorize an automatic pretrial release for all detainees charged with misdemeanors, victimless crimes and poverty-related offenses (like petty theft), and for Mayor Krewson to shut down the Workhouse altogether.

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The calls mirror those from other criminal justice advocates around the country who have successfully organized to close down New York City’s Rikers Island jail, which is set to shut down in its entirety within the next 10 years, and Louisiana’s Angola prison, which closed its solitary confinement cells earlier this year.

According to criminal justice advocates, the $16 million it takes annually to run the Workhouse could be divested and put into neighborhood initiatives that would do more to uplift St. Louis residents and prevent crime.

As Simmons said, “some of the folks are in there because they’re homeless,” adding that mental health issues are also prevalent at the Workhouse.

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“[That] $16 million could actually go toward creating safe spaces for them”—like mental health services—“and actually stabilize their lives in a way,” he said.

But, Simmons added, it’s important that impacted folks be part of the discussion and have a voice in where resources go.

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So far, the campaign to shut down the Workhouse includes four different local organizations: Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, Bail Project and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (M.O.R.E.). Thus far, Simmons says, they’re seeing more engagement this year than they have in the past.

A recent townhall about the shutdown initiative drew 150 people—double the attendees they were expecting—with participation from impacted residents, the activist community, elected officials and other city decision-makers.

“We received an astounding amount of commitments to be part of the campaign itself,” Simmons said, adding that the campaign is currently still in the early phase of educating people about the Workhouse.

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“We don’t know our history in St. Louis,” he said, “This isn’t the first campaign to confront the conditions in the Workhouse. I think just that as a realization has shifted some perspectives.”

The campaign could also be a bellwether for how much the city has changed in the years following the Ferguson Uprising.

“I do see the body politic being more sensitive ... because of what happened in the Uprising,” Simmons said. But the Uprising was also a wake-up call to grassroots social justice organizations over “how much of a desert St. Louis really had been” in terms of resources and organizing. The movement galvanized and united activists, helping them to connect to one another and to larger organizations.

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The network of activists pushing the Workhouse closer to shutting down may not have existed were it not for the Uprising, which forced a nation to confront not only police brutality, but the militarization of police and the way local governments profited off ticketing and jailing their black residents.

“This is a direct evolution of the work done in Ferguson,” Simmons said.