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Resolution seeks to close city workhouse

CITY HALL – A resolution now before the Board of Aldermen outlines a plan to use pressure to force the city to close its much-criticized Medium Security Institution.

The resolution would commit the Board of Aldermen to reject any budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that fully funds the Medium Security Institution as before. It asks the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which submits budget proposals to the aldermanic board, to include a plan in 2020-2021 fiscal year budget for closing the MSI and shifting the savings to other public service and human development needs.

Commonly called the Workhouse, the Medium Security Institution at 7600 Hall St. has long been criticized for poor conditions.

The resolution, sponsored by Ninth Ward Alderman Dan Guenther, says the facility now has about 250 detainees, or about 20 percent of its capacity. The city houses about 230 federal  prisoners in the Workhouse and the St. Louis City Justice Center.

By ending its contracts to hold federal detainees, St. Louis could hold all of its prisoners in the Justice Center, said the resolution, which Guenther introduced at Friday’s Board of Aldermen meeting. The aldermanic Public Safety Committee will review the proposal.

Closing the Workhouse could save $16 million, Guenther said. While the city would lose $5 million the federal government pays to keep its prisoners, the city would still have a net savings of $11 million to spend for other purposes, he said. A statement by the mayor’s office said the city received $6.5 million from the federal government last year, not including December. 

The city receives $80 a day for each federal prisoner, but loses $120 for each prisoner, Guenther said.

“We lose money if you’re looking at the real numbers of it,” he said. 

This is not a case of the Board of Aldermen’s putting pressure on the rest of city government to get what it wants, Guenther said.  

“We’re going to try to work together to find a solution here to close it. I wouldn’t use the word ‘pressure,’” Guenther said. 

The resolution said that a greater emphasis in recent years on granting of bail had brought a better set of bail standards and caused the number of prisoners in both facilities to drop below 900, well under the total capacity of 1,998. The City Justice Center at 200 S. Tucker Blvd. has a capacity of about 860 prisoners.

Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed said he didn’t think the approach suggested in the resolution was a good one. 

“If the board does not vote on the budget, the budget that was introduced by the budget director, that’s what becomes law,” Reed said. “He can actually double the funding for the workhouse, and the board can say, ‘They’re not going to vote on that.’ That is irresponsible.”

Jacob Long, director of communication for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said after Friday’s meeting that he hadn’t yet read the resolution.

However, he said, “On MSI, Medium Security Institution, we hope to have some plans about its future in the very near future.”

A document Long provided said that correctional facilities must have a vacancy race of about 15 percent to be accredited and stay safe. By doing that, they can separate different kinds of prisoners, including men and women.   

“Keeping this in mind and based on the current detainee population in the City of St. Louis, the capacity does not exist to fully shutter MSI,” the document said. “However, the City continues to actively work toward its long-term goal of operating only one correctional facility while looking for ways to repurpose MSI for the future.”

The document said work by judges, prosecutors and Krewson’s Criminal Justice Coordination Council had sharply reduced the number of prisoners. The only people in jail before trial are those considered a flight risk or a danger to themselves or other, it said. 

This means the vast majority of people the city is holding are those charged with serious violent felonies. None is being held for  municipal ordinance violations, and only about a dozen are held for misdemeanor offenses.

The statement said housing federal detainees at the City Justice Center, near the federal courthouse, had helped defendants and their attorneys. 

Also, in the last nearly three years, the city has spent more than $5.5 million on improvements at the MSI, according to the document.

The document said the city closed the second floor of the dorm at the MSI more than a year ago and the first floor of the dorm in November 2019.  The only part of the workhouse that the city is using is the newer pod areas of the MSI. Prisoners have access to medical care, a gym, chapel, computer lab, and other educational and informational resources.

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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