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A Lost Teaching Moment on Mass Incarceration: The St. Louis “Workhouse”

Last fall, during the campaign, I wrote a piece called Where is the Outrage?  that asked why there was not more political attention and policy clamor to address the stark examples of homelessness and other in-your-face examples of social policy failure in our midst.

Last week, the extreme heat of St. Louis produced an example so egregious that it is worth asking again why it did not receive larger national media visibility and outrage (this during a week when the Trump tweet stories were endlessly recycled). Why was this example not picked up by our national media to educate the public about the impact of cash bail, this largely invisible engine of incarceration and discrimination?

Last week, inmates awaiting trials in a medium security jail in North St. Louis – known as the “workhouse” – were subjected to unacceptable temperatures and conditions, all within sight of the local media.  Audible in the local newscasts, taped in front of the facility, were shouts of help and towels being waved out the windows. If you have not seen a version of this video, it is worth watching. 

Most of the Workhouse does not have air conditioning. Apparently, women inmates are housed in air-conditioned spaces, as well as inmates who have medical conditions. Otherwise, estimates are that the temperatures inside the Workhouse were roughly 5 to 10 degrees hotter inside than the outside temperatures, which reached 108 degrees along with extreme St. Louis humidity. At the time of the heat wave, the facility housed 769 inmates waiting for trial.

Other unsanitary and hazardous conditions – rodents, mold, insects, sewage, and abuse have been reported at the Hall Street Workhouse.

The Mayor’s initial response was telling. She announced that cooling rooms, wet towels, ice, Gatorade, and popsicles would be made available.

To be fair, these conditions produced immediate local advocacy and some national attention, particularly in social media. State Representative Joshua Peters, who has been calling attention to the conditions and calling for reform in this jail for many years, was quoted. Protests outside of the jail turned out several hundred people and threatened action to release inmates. Police responded with pepper spray. Nationally, the Huffington Post reported, and a number of African American, city, and other specialty outlets picked up the story.

A crowd funding effort, sponsored by Arch City Defenders, St. Louis Action, and Decarcerate STL, produced an initial flow of contributions that sprung at least fifteen inmates who had been unable to make bail.

With this pushback, the City subsequently brought in five temporary air conditioners to alleviate the worst of this heat.

The media mystery of this appalling episode is why did it not become a larger national story – a policy “teachable moment?”

On display was the underlying incarceration and cash bail system that placed more than 760 inmates in this appalling facility in the first place. The policy backdrop of these conditions is a bail system that incarcerates nonviolent individuals who simply do not have the money to make bail. As is well-known, this system often creates a financial and criminal justice downward spiral, where nonviolent and sometimes innocent people incur substantial debt, and are often unable to meet their employment and family responsibilities while they are being held.

Scholars and policy analysts have produced a virtual library of analysis of this system as well as evidence-based reforms,[i] but unfortunately not enough of this has penetrated the public consciousness. The Clark-Fox Foundation and many other policy and advocacy organizations have assembled impressive amounts of evidence and resources on this issue, including maps of the overall “ecosystem” of the criminal justice system where this cash bail problem is situated.

This Workhouse jail story, however, had the potential to shine bright light on just one aspect of this larger ecology of mass incarceration – the pernicious and pervasive effects of cash bail and bonds. For the media’s purposes, the availability of graphic video could have been used to raise attention and understanding of the underlying issue, but it was all swamped by the national preoccupation with the current soap opera of our President.

The systemic effect of this cash bail structure was one of the key drivers of the Ferguson protests of three years ago, and unfortunately little progress has been made. Some positive examples can be seen nationally, such as New Jersey’s bail reforms that eliminate cash bail for most nonviolent charges. To move this agenda forward, we need to amplify these illustrations of the dire consequences of our policies — tell the story — so that it touches a much larger audience. The Workhouse jail example, as appalling as it is, was one of those lost opportunities to bring the consequences of the cash bail system viscerally into the public consciousness.

[i] See for example, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Jonathan Simon, Mass Incarceration on Trial; James Forman, Locking Up Our Own; James Kilgore, Understanding Mass Incarceration; Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy; and Carrie Pettus-Davis and Matthew Epperson, Smart Decarceration.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post. Sadly, the nightmare for most of the people in the workhouse is just beginning. Many of them will be represented by an overworked public defender and end up pleading guilty to one or more charges. Whether or not they go to prison, they will have joined the ranks of 70 million other Americans by obtaining a criminal record. Most employers will not even think of hiring them (“prospective applicants must pass a criminal background check”) and they will be relegated to “pick and shovel” work. If and when they violate their probation (which happens frequently) they will be sent to prison along with the 2.2 million Americans who are locked up on a daily basis. It is a tremendous waste of human capital and an economic drain on state and local governments as well as communities. And meanwhile, the children of the incarcerated grow up without a father or mother so that politicians can score political points and look “tough on crime.”


    August 9, 2017

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