Activists celebrate decision to close ‘hellish’ St Louis jail


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The debtors’ jail where those locked inside lived among rats and roaches is finally set to close after recent mass anti-racism protests

By Clark Randall, The Guardian

It has been called an “unspeakably hellish” extension of a racist and classist criminal justice system where those locked up inside live with rats, roaches and black mold.

Known as the Workhouse, the medium security institution in St Louis, Missouri, has gained a reputation as a notorious debtors’ jail, where incarceration was used for decades as an answer to minor technical and fine-related violations, and where large bond fees were extracted from many people detained pre-trial.

Yet this month, galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement and mass anti-racism protests that reignited after the police killing of George Floyd, Close the Workhouse campaigners are celebrating. On 17 July, the St Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously passed legislation to close the jail by year’s end.

“Today, there’s less than 90 people inside,” Inez Bordeaux, an organizer at ArchCity Defenders, said. “It’s clear that no one can say the Workhouse, this hellhole, is still needed.”

Bordeaux was formerly incarcerated in the Workhouse in 2016 after a technical probation violation – an error in the system left her with the task of reporting to a parole officer who had long since left the force. Bordeaux, a registered nurse and mother of four, was legally innocent but she was being detained pre-trial because she couldn’t afford her $25,000 bail. She was deemed lucky to get out after just a month.

Inez Bordeaux, an organizer in the Close the Workhouse campaign, poses in front of the facility in 2018. PC: Sid Hastings/The Guardian

When the Guardian visited two years ago, 575 people were being held inside – 98% of whom had been caged pre-trial and 90% of whom were Black, despite Black people making up fewer than 50% of the city’s population.

Once inside, people were held an average of 10 months. The time inside routinely dismantled any previously achieved stability.

The dramatic decrease in detainees over the last two years is due to the sustained effort of the Bail Project, which pays bail for people in need, “reuniting families and restoring the presumption of innocence” to combat mass incarceration.

“Since January of 2018, around 3,500 detainees in the city have been bailed out,” said Michelle Higgins, a Close the Workhouse organizer. “That’s it, they are literally emptying the jail cells of the city. It’s been an undeniable success…”

Read full article here

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