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How Inspections of St. Louis' Workhouse Became a Battle of Belief

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Scenes from a May 7 inspection, filmed by Heather Taylor, who viewed old dormitories and bathrooms deemed inhumane under current jail standards. - SCREENSHOTS VIA HEATHER TAYLOR VIDEO
  • SCREENSHOTS VIA HEATHER TAYLOR VIDEO
  • Scenes from a May 7 inspection, filmed by Heather Taylor, who viewed old dormitories and bathrooms deemed inhumane under current jail standards.

In an interview with the RFT, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones explains that she planned her April 24 tour with the hope that it would show her the "real" Workhouse, not just its best angles.

"I wanted to see for myself, and I didn't want to give them much time to clean things up before going," she says. "They tried — I could definitely tell that they tried to make it seem like everything was fine while I was there."

But even with hasty cleanup jobs, Jones says it was the detainees she spoke to who gave her "a totally different story." One described his transfer to the Workhouse from the Justice Center after a recent uprising. He was still wearing the same mace-soaked clothes and underwear.

For Jones, it's a question of, "Who's telling the truth here?"

"I'm more likely to believe people who are experiencing it," she says, "than anybody else."

The April 24 tour was more than a public relations stop for the incoming Jones' administration, and she's referenced the event in significant ways through her first month in office. On April 28, for instance, she issued an executive order demanding the Department of Corrections provide "all complaints" from detainees going back to 2017.

The announcement stated: "After personally witnessing unsanitary and inhumane conditions inside both facilities, Mayor Jones spoke with detainees who expressed concerns about the carelessness by which Corrections staff handled their complaints."

Closing the Workhouse by July 1, when the new city budget goes into effect, is a steep challenge. The city is rushing to repair its understaffed and embattled downtown jail, the City Justice Center, whose faulty locks were exposed in a series of uprisings and riots starting in December. Consolidating the city's total jail population of roughly 800 into a single facility will be a tight fit. With the Justice Center currently functioning at only partial capacity, the task will likely require relocating some detainees to outside facilities, at least temporarily.

These outcomes were acknowledged in the same budget that erased the Workhouse's annual funding. Under Jones' budget, the city set aside $1.4 million to pay for overflow housing in other jails.

There are practical upsides to closing the Workhouse, Jones argues: It will allow the employees in the two struggling city jails to combine, resolving the chronic understaffing at the Justice Center that left detainees neglected and staff feeling unsafe. The Justice Center has gotten by with a dangerously low detainee-to-officer ratio, Jones says, adding, "obviously, that creates a situation where our jail staff can be overrun."

Under the mayor's plan, the remaining millions that once funded the Workhouse will go toward aiding those leaving incarceration. That includes $1.3 million to expand reentry programs and to hire social workers and provide access to childcare and mental-health services.

Reducing the overall jail population is the only lasting solution, Jones says. Along with promising to close the Workhouse in her first 100 days — a deadline that falls on July 30 — she's announced potentially significant policy changes to the city's public safety spending, shifting funds from long-unfilled police officer positions to struggling emergency services and expanding programs for crime prevention.

"This isn't just about closing the Workhouse and just letting people out, this is about helping people get back to productive lives," she says. "If people feel like they were treated fairly while in the system, with dignity and respect, and get support after they get out — that's going to reduce recidivism in the long term."

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