Inez Bordeaux spent a month as a prisoner in the St. Louis Workhouse.
“I’ve seen women pick roaches out of their food. I’ve seen the black mold growing across the walls. I have seen the rat infestation. I’ve seen the roach infestation,” she said. “I have been there when 50 women in a pod can’t take showers because the sewers keep backing up.”
Bordeaux was locked up because she fled her abusive husband, and needed a state child care subsidy to pay for day care for her four children while she worked as a nurse. But her salary was $57 over the limit to qualify for the payments.
She kept quiet about it, needing the child care so the kids wouldn’t have to go back with their father. She was caught, lost her job, was struggling to pay restitution, became homeless, and missed an appointment with her probation officer. So she was tossed into the Workhouse because she didn’t have the money to pay bail on her parole violation charge.
“People are locked up there because of crimes of poverty,” she said. “The women I got to know when I was in the Workhouse, they were there for things like low-level drug crimes, low -level weed possession, crimes of poverty, stealing Pampers out of Wal-Mart because they couldn’t afford them.”
Bordeaux is now an activist with Close the Workhouse, a coalition trying to get the filthy facility on Hall Street, where over 90 percent of the inmates are locked up simply for not having the cash to make bail, closed for good.
“I will never be able to get back what was taken from me. So justice for me means spending the rest of my life tearing down the systems that have put me in this position,” Bordeaux said. “No one should have to feel that hopelessness that I felt in the Workhouse. I felt thrown away, like I did not matter, my life did not matter.”
Appearing on The Jaco Report, Bordeaux joined attorney Thomas Harvey to discuss the issue. Harvey, formerly of Arch City defenders, is now with a California-based group called The Advancement Project. Bordeaux and Harvey talked about closing the Workhouse and about a St. Louis federal judge’s ruling June 10 requiring the city to review the hundreds of inmates languishing in its jails who haven’t been convicted, but simply can’t afford to make bail. The judge has ordered the city to either release the prisoners or set bail at a low, appropriate level.
The city says this will take a while to accomplish, despite the judge’s order that it all be done within 30 days. Harvey, whose organization was one of those who filed the federal lawsuit against the city, is slightly sympathetic.
“They’re in the process of essentially trying to undo decades of not providing hearings that met constitutional standards over the course of, say, ten days or so,” Harvey said. He noted that the city had several hundred people currently locked up who have never been convicted of charges brought against them, but who simply lack the money to pay bail.
The campaign against the cash bail system and the campaign to close the Workhouse are intertwined, primarily because the vast majority of the inmates at the Workhouse are there for failure to make bail. The Workhouse, currently at less than half capacity, costs the city $16 million a year to operate.