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Messenger: Now in full retreat, Krewson has one good choice. Close the workhouse.

Messenger: Now in full retreat, Krewson has one good choice. Close the workhouse.

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Protesters continue to demand to shut down the workhouse

“When the people, the constituents of this city tried to come inside the house that we pay for you locked the doors, you locked the doors. Did you lock the doors? Did you lock the doors? … We've been out here calling for you," said organizer Inez Bordeaux with "Close the Workhouse" addressing Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, who came outside to talk protesters, who had been protesting to shut down the Medium Security Institution, informally known as the workhouse, had ended on Friday, June 26, 2020, outside City Hall in St. Louis. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

The moment of defeat didn’t come when an online petition calling for the resignation of Mayor Lyda Krewson passed 30,000 signatures in about 48 hours.

It didn’t come when Krewson, during her COVID-19 news conference on Friday, live-streamed on Facebook, chose to start reading the names and home addresses of people who had protested at City Hall that day, urging her to close the city’s medium security jail known as the workhouse.

Krewson’s defeat didn’t even come earlier in the week, when the Close the Workhouse campaign, which has now secured a majority of aldermen to favor the movement, delayed passage of the city’s budget because Krewson still won’t close the aging and near-empty facility and free up millions of dollars for other purposes.

No, the defeat happened long before, when Krewson failed to understand that which should be a strength: math.

In her professional life, Krewson is an accountant, and a good one based on her professional accomplishments. That background failed her as the Close the Workhouse movement gained steam, particularly in the past year.

Long before George Floyd’s death made Defund the Police a national slogan, the Close the Workhouse movement was about math. That’s what Mary Fox told me last year. At the time she was the head public defender in St. Louis. Now she runs the state public defender’s office. On that March evening when she spoke at a Close the Workhouse panel discussion, there were a total of 1,077 detainees in the city’s two jails, the bulk of them, 697, in the more modern City Justice Center. That jail has a capacity of 860. The workhouse, with a capacity of more than 1,000, was holding 380 people.

Take out the federal detainees the city holds — likely at a financial loss, when fixed jail expenses are considered — and there was more than enough room at CJC for the city detainees, Fox suggested. That would free up (at the time) about $16 million for other important needs in the city, the sort of needs the protesters whose names Krewson read were advocating for, like money for social workers, the Cure Violence program, and neighborhood redevelopment.

“There is no reason for the city to operate two jails at an enormous expense to taxpayers,” Fox said then. “There is no need for the workhouse, and you’re wasting your money on it.”

At the time, Fox was one of a handful of city officials to advocate for closing the workhouse. The movement now includes a majority of the Board of Aldermen, Comptroller Darlene Green, Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and her opponent in the upcoming election, former assistant circuit attorney Mary Pat Carl. The Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company is funding billboards downtown advocating for the movement.

All along, Krewson has said she was sympathetic — she’d like the city to have only one jail — but the numbers didn’t add up to her liking. They needed to be much lower to close the workhouse, she said.

A little more than one year later, these are the numbers:

At the moment Krewson was apologizing for what the Close the Workhouse protesters believed was an act of intimidation, there were 751 people detained in city jails, with only 92 in the workhouse. Even without moving any federal prisoners — and there is excess capacity in other jails nearby — closing the workhouse makes sense.

It makes sense as a matter of public policy, to Black people like Inez Bordeaux, a leader in the Close the Workhouse movement, who sees the place of her former confinement as a symbol of the city’s racist past and its judicial system that sometimes criminalizes her blackness.

It makes sense as a simple matter of math, to create more cash for items that both Krewson and the protesters say they’d like to see funded.

And it makes sense as a simple act of dignity, a meaningful apology for an unfortunate act that is drawing national attention to St. Louis for all the wrong reasons.

The confinement trend in the city is not going to change, not with new bail rules set by Missouri Supreme Court rule intended to protect the constitutional rights of indigent defendants, not with the next circuit attorney, whomever she is, wanting to close the workhouse, and not with the national Defund the Police movement gaining steam.

Had she stuck to math, Krewson already would have long ago announced her plans to close the workhouse. She could have declared a victory. She chose a different path.

Now, in full retreat, she has backed herself into a corner of her own making.

Closing the workhouse is the only way out.

Tony Messenger • 314-340-8518

@tonymess on Twitter


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