The NorthSider

Mayor’s office working toward closing workhouse, eventually

CITY HALL – Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office is pushing against a proposal to have the Board of Aldermen refuse to approve any budget for 2020-2021 that doesn’t include a plan to close the city’s workhouse at 7600 Hall St. But the mayor’s office is open to the idea eventually.

According to a fact sheet issued by the mayor’s office, prisoner numbers are way down but it’s still not possible to close the workhouse, officially called the Medium Security Institution, and move all prisoners to the St. Louis City Justice Center at 200 S. Tucker Blvd.

“However, the City is actively working toward its long-term goal of operating one jail,” the fact sheet said. 

“St. Louis City Justice Center has 860 beds. You can’t fill a jail to 100 percent,” Krewson’s Chief of Staff Stephen Conway told members of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee during a hearing on the resolution on Wednesday.

The resolution puts the Board of Estimate and Apportionment on notice that the Board of Aldermen will not approve a 2020-2021 budget to fully operate the Medium Security Institution. The resolution asks the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to include in that budget a plan to close the MSI. The savings should be used for public safety and human development activities, the resolution says. 

The estimate board proposes a budget to the Board of Aldermen and approves any changes aldermen make.

Twenty-Third Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, pointed out that if the Board of Aldermen didn’t approve a budget, it would pass as is anyway. That would include all money for the workhouse and none for services such as cutting grass that aldermen might want to add.

But Ninth Ward Alderman Dan Guenther, who introduced the resolution, expressed hope that two-thirds of the estimate board would go along with the resolution. He said he hoped one member of that board, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, would fight for what aldermen want. He also said Comptroller Darlene Green favored closing the workhouse. 

Tyson Pruitt, a spokesman for the comptroller, said that broadly speaking, she supported moving toward closing the workhouse. But he wouldn’t say whether Green would support Guenther’s resolution.

“We’re saying, let’s start coming up with this program, this plan,” Guenther said. “We’re not asking that in July, when we have this budget, we’re locking the doors, letting everyone out and turning the lights out. We’re saying that we don’t want this workhouse fully funded. We want to come up with a transition plan.” 

Supporters of the resolution say closing the facility would save $16 million a year. They say the city could use the money for such things as drug treatment, witness protection and pretrial services that help nonviolent offenders to get to court.

“This is where our values are, and we want the budget to look like this,” Eighth Ward Alderman Annie Rice said.

“If you’re dangerous, you don’t get out,” Rice explained. “If you’re not dangerous, we find ways to get you back to court. We can fund pretrial services that take humanity into account.”

However, Conway said the savings would be much smaller than $16 million. The city still would have to pay for food, medical expenses and other costs for those who are now held in the workhouse.

Eighteenth Ward Alderman Jesse Todd said the Workhouse was overwhelmingly filled with African-Americans.

“It’s called the new Jim Crow,” Todd said. The city has the responsibility to save money by closing the workhouse, he said.

The fact sheet issued by the mayor’s office says the workhouse has seen a sharp decrease in prisoners and a vast improvement in its facilities over the past several years. 

The City’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has been working with various parties to make sure that St. Louis is not holding people just because they can’t afford to pay bail, the fact sheet said. 

Nobody is in jail for violating a municipal ordinance, and fewer than 10 are jailed for violating misdemeanors. Almost entirely, the people in jail are the ones detained for serious, violent felony offenses.

Also, the fact sheet said that since April 2017, the city had invested more than $5.5 million in the workhouse to improve its condition. 

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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