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Jones, Bush condemn conditions at city’s jails

NORTH RIVERFRONT – Less than a week after becoming mayor, Tishaura Jones led a congresswoman and other officials Saturday on a tour of two much-maligned jail facilities.

After interviewing detainees at the City Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution (the Workhouse), Jones told about poor conditions.  Then Jones repeated her plans to end funding for the Workhouse and push through detainees so they spend less time behind bars.

She made the inspection tour with U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis; and Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner.

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner (left), U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, and Mayor Tishaura Jones tour one of the city’s jails on April 24, 2021. Photos courtesy city of St. Louis mayor’s office

“I think I speak for all three of us by saying we were disappointed and shocked and frustrated by what we saw,” Jones said in a news conference in front of the Workhouse at 7400 Hall Street.

Jones said she stood committed to the newly introduced city budget that zeros out funding for the workhouse. 

“Today, the interviews that we had with the detainees in both facilities confirmed that this is the right decision,” Jones said. “People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. As the daughter of someone who was incarcerated, this is personal to me. This is someone’s father, someone’s mother, brother.”

In September 1995, Jones’ father, Virvus Jones, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony tax fraud and later was sentenced to one year and a day in federal prison. Prosecutors claimed that Jones had used $118,000 in a campaign fund and a nephew’s guardian account to pay his own expenses.

The walls of a jail cell are covered with graffiti.

Bush told the gathered journalists that what she saw in the two facilities made it hard for her to say “Good afternoon.” That’s the reason why she and Jones had run for office, she said. 

“We don’t want to just complain about what we think is happening, we want to have access to see what’s happening, so that we can actually make changes for real people,” Bush said. 

Bush heard detainees offer such complaints as, “I want to be able to have water so I can go to the bathroom” and “There’s feces on the floor,” she said.

Mayor Tishaura Jones (left) and Rep. Cori Bush speak with a detainee through the door slot.

“The people are saying that the food is coming so cold when we get it, every single day. Also, what is it on a tray? I assume it’s full, but what is it?” Bush said. “We understand it’s not a hotel, but that does not mean that you do not treat people with dignity, respect, with basic rights.”

Bush said she had seen filth, trash, bugs, people wearing clothes that had been Maced, and a lack of cleaning supplies. 

Mayor Tishaura Jones meets with detainees.

Gardner said the detainees suffered from a lack of basic medical care, mental health care and adequate COVID-19 testing. She said she was glad there was a mayor who would actually see the conditions that had long existed.

The system is beyond broken and needs to be rebuilt fairly and justly, Gardner said.

“That’s not saying I’m not going to hold people accountable who break the laws” or commit violent crimes, she explained, “but at the same time, they deserve basic human rights when they’re held in confinement.”

Jones was asked what she had seen in Saturday’s tours that made her think the Workhouse was impossible to save, even with renovations and reform.

She replied: “The majority of the people we saw today in both facilities are Black. And we don’t need two jails. We need to move people through the system. We need to find alternatives to jail for some of the offenses. We need to help the circuit attorney with our diversion program so they never see the inside of a jail.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com 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 www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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