For Immediate Release: ArchCity Defenders and the Close the Workhouse Campaign Release Phone Recordings and Testimonials Detailing First-Hand Accounts of St. Louis City Jails’ “Egregious” and “Unsanitary” Conditions During COVID-19

Z Gorley, Communications Director, ArchCity Defenders
(314) 643-2463

April 16, 2020

ArchCity Defenders and the Close the Workhouse Campaign Release Phone Recordings and Testimonials Detailing First-Hand Accounts of St. Louis City Jails’ “Egregious” and “Unsanitary” Conditions During COVID-19

ArchCity Defenders and the Close the Workhouse campaign have released a series of legal declarations and audio recordings from people incarcerated in St. Louis City’s jails, describing the unsanitary, unsafe, and deplorable conditions in both the City Justice Center (CJC) and the Medium Security Institution, aka “the Workhouse.”

“As far as how I feel the City is handling the Coronavirus? I feel like they’re handling it very poorly. As far as jail procedures, they’re going about it in a way that’s not sanitary, they don’t hand out hand sanitizer, we’ve only received one mask… There are CO’s coming in from the outside who are constantly not wearing masks. It’s a whole bunch of nonsense,” said a man who is currently jailed at the Workhouse. “There’s people in the building who have the Coronavirus and they don’t want to give out the information…I feel like they should be taking better care of the inmates, the conditions are disgusting. We haven’t had the unit cleaned in over a week, the floors are still dirty, the showers are still dirty… no one offers any soap, if you don’t have soap to wash your hands, you’re just on your own. They’re not really putting in the effort to make sure any cells are clean, they don’t pass out cleaning supplies, they don’t even give us a broom, let alone a mop. We’re just sitting here rotting. It’s just disgusting.”

All of the audio recordings can be found on ArchCity Defenders’ SoundCloud channel. The playlist is entitled #DecarcerateSTL: Caged During COVID-19, Stories from the Inside.

Taken as a whole, these personal accounts reflect serious concerns about contracting the Coronavirus, as well as City employees demonstrating a lack of regard for the safety, health, and wellbeing for people who are incarcerated. In both jails, people described not having soap, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer, gloves, cleaning supplies, or masks. People also indicated they have not had access to testing or adequate medical care, and have not been able to practice social distancing consistently.

While the Workhouse has a capacity of 1138, the number of people jailed there has steadily decreased to a population of 117 as a result of Close the Workhouse campaign’s efforts, community organizing, growing political pressure, ongoing litigation, community and Bail Project bailouts, and prosecutorial reforms. The greatly diminished population in the Workhouse, combined with the dangers of COVID-19 presents a critical moment for the City of St. Louis to permanently shutter the jail that costs taxpayers $16 million annually.

“These accounts are deeply concerning,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “Every day, we are hearing from one set of people inside these jails who feel that their health, and very lives, are at great risk. At the same time, other concerned St. Louisans are asking what is being done to ensure that people are safe. City officials at every level need to think very hard about whether they are comfortable condemning a certain number of people in their jails to serious illness or, worse, death. The experts continue to warn us that that is a real possibility.”

On March 26, seventeen medical and public health experts signed onto a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, authored by Dr. Fred Rottnek of St. Louis University School of Medicine. In requesting that the Court order the release of individuals from jails across the state, Dr. Rottnek, formerly the medical director of the St. Louis County Jail, wrote that he and other signers “believe these institutions are unable to comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for treating or preventing the spread of COVID-19.” The letter also states that “the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to devastate the lives of both incarcerated individuals and jail personnel, and result in a medical emergency that could overwhelm Missouri’s medical infrastructure.” Among the signers were Dr. Laurie Punch, a trauma surgeon with BJC Healthcare, Dr. Christine Jacobs, Chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine, and Dr. Jason Purnell, Health Equity Works Program Director at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and head of the newly-formed COVID-19 Regional Response Team.

Long before the perils of COVID-19, the Workhouse was known for caging poor people and Black people pretrial in hellish and inhumane conditions (i.e. black mold, violent-unsafe, mice & rat infestation, mice feces in food, bug and roach infestation, snakes in showers, inadequate medical care). A jail conditions lawsuit filed by ArchCity Defenders in November 2017, Cody vs. City of St. Louis Case No. 4:17-CV-2707-AGF., is currently pending.

In late March, ArchCity Defenders set-up a jail hotline number to learn about jail conditions from people incarcerated and their loved ones on the outside. Individuals directly impacted are encouraged to call and leave a message at: (314) 643-8773.

In April, ArchCity Defenders launched a series on social media entitled #DecarcerateSTL, featuring voices of people incarcerated in the City jails, as well as second-hand accounts shared by their loved ones on the outside. Click the links below to view those:
Caged During Covid-19 Story #1
Caged During Covid-19 Story #2
Caged During Covid-19 Story #3

Legal declarations for these individuals can be found in a zipped folder here.

To hear first-hand accounts of people who have survived the hellish conditions of the Workhouse prior to COVID-19, click here to see Close the Workhouse’s series “Humans of the Workhouse”.