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Byers' Beat: The tab for taxpayers keeps rising at St. Louis jail

Class action lawsuit remains pending against the city

ST. LOUIS — In the past five years, St. Louisans have spent almost $7 million to upgrade one of their jails known as The Workhouse – and residents may soon pay more to shut it down.

The biggest chunks of the improvements include:

  • About $1.6 million on new HVAC equipment on pods and administrative support buildings including electrical upgrades and wiring
  • $1.7 million on a security camera recording system
  • About $918,000 in shower/sink/restroom renovations
  • About $605,000 in shower upgrades
  • About $490,000 on electrical upgrades

Other upgrades included new washers, dryers, wire fence replacement, wiring for commissary vending machines in the housing units, tile replacement in the kitchen, an ice machine, upgrades to sliding doors, removal and replacement of bunk beds, commercial-grade baking equipment for the baking program, temporary air conditioning, roof repairs as well as fire alarm inspection and repairs.

Most of the money for the upgrades – about $6 million of it – has been spent since 2018.

That’s the year ArchCity Defenders filed a class action lawsuit against the city on behalf of detainees there alleging inhumane conditions at the jail.

Attorneys for the city have cited the millions of dollars in upgrades and improvements the city has spent as proof that the issues have been fixed, according to filings.

Still, ArchCity Defenders has demanded $10 million to settle the case.

One of its board members, Kayla Reed, accompanied Mayor Tishaura Jones, Congresswoman Cori Bush and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner on a tour of the facility on April 24.

The women – including Reed – told reporters the jail remains inhumane following their tour.

And Jones reaffirmed her campaign promise to close it. 

On her first day in office, she proposed a budget that would close it July 1.

Her new chief policy advisor, Nahuel Fefer, is also a former Justice Catalyst Fellow for ArchCity Defenders. 

In emails, Fefer was one of the organizers of the mayor's tour and attended it as well.

The mayor’s comments, along with the others, affirmed some of the law firm's allegations of inhumane conditions inside the facility.

The women said they saw roaches, filth and trash, and meals were served to detainees too cold.

Should the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approve Jones’ budget proposal, and The Workhouse closes July 1, a substantial portion of the lawsuit could become moot. 

But not all of it. 

Attorneys often seek fees when what they were trying to accomplish by filing a lawsuit happens through other means.

In this case, should the Board of Alderman accept Jones's budget and close The Workhouse, ArchCity Defenders could go to a judge and say the city voluntarily closed the facility.

If the judge believes the lawsuit was the reason for the closure, ArchCity Defenders could ask for attorneys fees.

And how much that will cost taxpayers remains to be seen.

But Jones has made it clear, in her budget proposal, the jail tour and her campaign promise, that it's a cost she's willing to bear.