St. Louis’s Movement-Backed Mayor Promised to Close an Infamous Jail. What’s the Hold Up?
Mayor Tishaura Jones, who took office in April 2021, promised to empty the jail known as “the Workhouse” within the first 100 days of her tenure.
ST. LOUIS — “What is the delay in closing the Workhouse?” moderator Maquis Govan asks Mayor Tishaura Jones at a virtual town hall on “re-envisioning public safety” February 8.
The event was co-organized by Action St. Louis, an affiliate of the Movement for Black Lives. The group’s 501©4 arm, Action St. Louis Power Project, endorsed Jones during her 2021 mayoral run. The Rev. Michelle Higgins opened the event by thanking Jones warmly for “valuing and loving the constituents of this city in this way: taking the time to listen to our questions directly.”
Now, activists want clarification on when the mayor will fulfill her campaign promise to close the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, more commonly known as the Workhouse, which activists have been trying to shut down for years.
The jail itself opened in 1966, but its nickname and legacy is a reference to the 1840s, when St. Louis sent manacled scofflaws to work off debt 10 hours at a time in a rock quarry. Since the Workhouse opened, it’s been followed by a reputation for human rights violations and poor conditions, including pests, mold, lack of heat and poor medical attention.
In 2017, a video of people screaming inside the Workhouse circulated online. At the time, the jail did not have air conditioners; the temperature inside hit 115 degrees. In 2018, momentum from the resulting protests led Action St. Louis, with legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, to launch the Close the Workhouse campaign.
Action St. Louis formed after the 2014 Ferguson uprising and has been primarily focused on organizing street uprisings into long-term issue campaigns. Alongside other local and national groups, for example, it succeeded in 2018 in ousting county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who had declined to press charges in the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014.
“Issue campaigns don’t have the same timeline as electoral campaigns,” says Kayla Reed, the group’s co-founder and executive director. “It may take several years to get something like [Close the Workhouse] done, but it’s been worth the investment.”
A 2018 report from the Close the Workhouse campaign found up to 95 percent of people were held in the Workhouse because they couldn’t pay pre-trial bonds. And, in a city whose population is 50 percent Black, almost 90 percent of the people held were Black.
In July 2020, the Board of Aldermen voted to close the Workhouse, and the campaign declared victory — but the jail remained open because, the city said, moving people to another jail would cause Covid-19 overcrowding.
When former city treasurer Tishaura Jones announced her second bid for mayor, in November 2020, her platform called for the full closure of the Workhouse, which she had advocated since 2016 — and Action St. Louis made a rare foray into electoral politics by endorsing Jones.
Paid and volunteer canvassers with Action St. Louis Power Project knocked on more than 60,000 doors, and Jones won by 4% to become the city’s first Black woman mayor.
On Jones’ first full day in office, April 21, 2021, she filed a budget proposal to close the Workhouse. By June 2021, most of the Workhouse’s detainees had been moved to St. Louis’ other jail, the City Justice Center — but the Workhouse remains open, though only the jail’s most recent addition, known as the CJC Annex.
To the question Govan posed at the virtual town hall, submitted by audience member Janice Banks, Jones reassured the audience that the “Workhouse as everybody knows it is closed” and the 23 people held at the Annex would be transferred as soon as repairs were completed at the City Justice Center, potentially by the end of February.
The Annex remains open.
The town hall was designed in part “to get Tishaura on public record saying when she’s going to close the Workhouse, give us a timeline,” says Jae Shepherd, abolition organizer for Action St. Louis. Shepherd sees a need for more forums with elected officials. The town hall was the first Action St. Louis has organized, and it drew more than 180 people with more than 150 questions. At a debriefing a week later, some attendees felt the mayor hadn’t made clear commitments and wanted follow-through on two things: First, reforming the city’s new Cops and Clinicians program, designed to send social workers alongside police officers on mental health calls, to be able to send clinicians alone. Second, to end no-knock warrants and raids.
“We had folks whose loved ones were killed from a no-knock raid,” Shepherd says. “[Jones] has the power to do a moratorium.”
Action St. Louis is converting the feedback from the debriefing into a list of questions and demands to send to Jones.
“It’s really important for voters to understand that elected officials work for them, and that they can ask questions between elections,” Reed says. “We shouldn’t only engage with our elected officials during [get-out-the-vote] cycles. … For us, it was important that elected officials keep their promises, remain accountable to their base around their campaign commitments and work in deep collaboration with organizations that are seeking to build transformative policies for our community.”
Reed adds that “the win is not the candidate getting into office,” but “the moment where the candidate is in office and meets the demand.”
Skyler Aikerson is a freelance reporter based in Chicago and a former In These Times intern.