Photo by Doyle Murphy
St. Louis officials say they're working on a plan to bring in temporary air conditioners for the workhouse jail.
City officials say they're working to bring at least temporary relief to inmates baking from the heat inside the workhouse jail
Mayor Lyda Krewson and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed separately said they have been talking to vendors about renting air conditioning units to cool the Medium Security Institution.
"This is not something we're taking lightly," says Krewson spokesman Koran Addo.
The pressure has been on officials since Tuesday when a video highlighting the sweltering conditions was posted on Facebook. Inmates in the 51-year-old brick facility can be heard screaming for help through the windows.
"Help us!" yells one detainee. "We ain't go no A/C."
The video had been viewed nearly 550,000 times by Friday afternoon on the original Facebook post
and an untold number of times on other sites.
The city housed 770 inmates at the jail in June, according to the most recent monthly report. Built in 1966, it sits beside an industrial strip along the north riverfront. Large portions of the building lack air conditioning, and temperatures are reportedly five to ten degrees hotter than outside. That's made it especially brutal during this week's heat wave. Weather forecasts predict Saturday could be the worst day yet with temperatures that could hit 107 degrees.
State Rep. Joshua Peters (D-St. Louis) recently toured the jail and described the conditions as "deplorable" in letters mailed on Wednesday to the director of the state health department and the speaker of the House of Representatives. Although the city is in charge of the jail, the inmates are being held on state charges. Peters argues that gives the state a responsibility to help fix the situation.
Reed has asked the director of the city's Board of Public Service to meet with vendors about finding temporary air-conditioning units that could cool large swaths of the jail for the next 45-60 days.
"One of these companies may be able to provide a short term solution in these hot weather months until a more permanent change is made," Reed's chief of staff, Thomas Shepard, wrote on Wednesday in a letter to the board's director.
Reed tweeted this afternoon that a vendor believed cooling units could be installed as early as next week. Whether the city will move that quickly, remains to be seen.
Addo says Krewson had also been working on a similar plan. He notes voters rejected a bond issue in 2015 that would have included funding for air conditioning at the jail.
Kennard Williams of Decarcerate St. Louis, an organization working for alternatives to mass incarceration, says the problems with the workhouse are nothing new.
"This facility has been there since 1966," he says. "Where was all this (interest) last summer and the summer before?"
Still, he's happy to see a spotlight on problems at the jail. Aside from the heat, he says inmates have reported mold, guards denying inmates showers and a lack of hygiene products, especially for female inmates. Decarcerate and others have long argued the building needs to be shut down.
"What is it actually going to take for them to say this facility doesn't need to be open?" Williams asks. "Is someone going to have to die?"
The workhouse, like the majority of correctional facilities of its era, were built without air conditioning.
"This is just the reality of a facility that was built in 1966," Addo says, and few people saw the need to provide inmates with air-conditioning for decades after. "Kind of the sad fact of it is that was the public attitude at the time."
While a certain callousness toward inmates remains today, Addo notes the detainees in the workhouse haven't been convicted of a crime; they're people who are unable to post bail as they await trial. He says jail staff has been rotating inmates into air-conditioned parts of the building, providing them water and ice hourly, limiting their physical exertion and setting up fans.
A trio of organizations — Arch City Defenders, Decarcerate and St. Louis Action Council — have worked in recent days to raise money to bail out inmates
On Friday afternoon, activist Kayla Reed of the St. Louis Action Council announced on Twitter they had been able to free fifteen people so far.
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