One inmate says of St. Louis’s Workhouse, “This place is hell,” but a reporter’s underground tour doesn’t find the sweating hellhole described by activists.
By reputation, the St. Louis Workhouse is a mold-infested pit whose 700-plus detainees— nearly all of whom are merely awaiting trial — are drawn from the ranks of the poor, addicted, homeless and mentally ill. Inmates, lawyers and anti-incarceration activists have alleged that medical care is withheld for months and that guards beat inmates and put them against each other in “gladiator-style combat.” In the summer, the cells broil with triple-digit heat, although temporary air-conditioning units installed last month may finally address that problem, reports the Riverfront Times. On Friday, a reporter from the weekly newspaper accompanied Alderwoman Megan Green on an unannounced visit to the facility. The Times reporter did not disclose his identity as a reporter but was described as a graduate student in social work.
The Times reported that in a three-hour tour, physical conditions appeared better than the sweating hellhole described by activists recently, although the jail, officially called a medium security institution, is dirty and grimy. Some inmates are being held for the smallest of offenses, and simply because they don’t have money for bail, condemning them to city custody while they’re waiting for their day in court. The nickname comes from an 1848 city ordinance saying prisoners who could not pay their fines would be committed to the “Work House” to pay off their debts, and then released. These days, many men and women in the Workhouse find themselves imprisoned because they cannot pay their bonds or traffic tickets. One female inmate hissed for attention, then whispered, “This place is hell.” Another prisoner motioned at the showers and advises visitors to watch out for fleas.