The Appeal: What The St. Louis Mayoral Candidates Would Do To Close The City’s Notorious Workhouse Jail

March 26, 2021

By Meg O’Connor


Tishaura Jones wants to decriminalize offenses and transfer people out of the Workhouse. Cara Spencer wants to end the contract to house federal detainees.

Both candidates vying to become the next mayor of St. Louis have promised to close the Workhouse, one of the city’s notorious jails. But just how that will happen—and how soon it will close—depends on who gets elected April 6.

City treasurer Tishaura Jones has said she would close the Workhouse within 100 days of taking office if elected. Alderperson Cara Spencer has said she believes the jail can be closed before the end of this year. Both say they want to reinvest money saved from the closing into initiatives like job training, substance use programs, and mental health services. 

“The conditions [at the Workhouse] have always been horrendous,” said Jae Shepherd, an organizer with Action STL who has also worked with the campaign to close the jail. “Folks are in there legally innocent for a year or longer in hellish conditions, not being tested for COVID, with rats and roaches, and not being fed when they speak out.”

Activists have been pushing to close the Workhouse for years. In 2018, the facility held about 450 people on average, and almost everyone there was awaiting trial. Now, after years of pressure from activists, and policy changes from St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, only about 200 people remain incarcerated at the Workhouse. 

To close the jail, Jones told The Appeal she would work with local prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement to reduce the number of people incarcerated in the city by supporting policies like ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses and expanding diversion programs. Jones also said she would direct the St. Louis Metro Police Department to “prioritize enforcement of violent crime, and set out clear guidelines limiting the enforcement of misdemeanors like loitering, panhandling, and prostitution.”

Jones said she would work with the city comptroller to stop funding the facility, conduct mass vaccinations at both city jails, and transfer any remaining detainees to neighboring correctional facilities. Jones’s campaign did not respond when asked whether she would consider ending the contract to house federal detainees. 

Spencer, meanwhile, told The Appeal that most people held in the city’s jails are there on state or federal charges, not municipal charges. So in order to reduce the Workhouse’s population enough to close it, Spencer said she would prioritize reviewing the city’s contract to house federal detainees and ensuring that people who are incarcerated in the city’s jails aren’t awaiting trial for long periods of time.

In July, the city’s Board of Alders unanimously passed a bill to close the Workhouse by Dec. 31, 2020. That didn’t happen. Instead, departing mayor Lyda Krewson’s corrections commissioner, Dale Glass, said the bill only required them to make a plan to close the jail by the end of the year, which he said he did. Yet the Workhouse now holds over 100 more people than it did when the bill to close it passed.

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