How Do You Repurpose a Closed Jail? Competing Visions Clash in St. Louis

The closure of an infamous jail kicked off a process for community members to imagine what should come next. St. Louis city leaders heard them out, but also made their own plans.

Piper French   |    May 3, 2024

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones addresses press the outside the Medium Security Institution, known as the City Workhouse in April 2021. She would go on to close the jail months later. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Inez Bordeaux had heard horror stories about the St. Louis jail commonly known as the Workhouse—named so for prisoners held there in the 1800s who were forced to labor for their freedom—but it was only once she was sent there herself in 2016 that she realized: “Everything I’ve heard about the Workhouse is absolutely true.”

There were rats, roaches, black mold. There was the pervasive odor: “I don’t know if I have the words to accurately describe it, but it just smells rotted,” she told Bolts. “It smells like mildew and rot—and, like, despair.” And there was rampant neglect and abuse. “The way people are treated inside of the facility—like you are something that someone has scraped off the bottom of their shoe,” she said. 

In 2018, spurred by the memory of the six months she spent inside, Bordeaux got involved in the group Arch City Defenders’ fight to close down the Workhouse (today, she works as the group’s Deputy Director of Community Collaborations). The early 2021 mayoral win of Tishaura O. Jones, who had called to shutter the Workhouse as early as 2016, was a boon for the movement: Jones largely emptied the jail later that year, and permanently shut its doors in mid-2022. That might have been the end of some campaigns. In St. Louis, it was just the beginning.

Many prisons and jails that get emptied of one incarcerated population still end up warehousing people under another carceral function: they become ICE detention facilities, or simply hold prisoners for another jurisdiction. St. Louis was determined to chart a different course. 

Once the Workhouse was officially closed, the city embarked on an 18-month-long process to envision a future for the space, quite literally called Reenvisioning the Workhouse. It involved soliciting input from 2,500 St. Louis organizations and individuals, including residents who live near the site, and, critically, people who had been incarcerated there. It would all lead up to a final report to be presented to the mayor’s office with recommendations for the building and its surrounding land. As different groups came together to work through divergent ideas for the site, and ultimately produce a host of proposals about what might replace the Workhouse, the process tapped into a deep wellspring of feeling about a building that for many represents nothing but sorrow.

Then in March, two months after the Workhouse transition team released their final report, Jones announced a different plan: she wanted to use the site to build tiny homes for unhoused people. The move came as a shock to many organizers, including those who were involved throughout the process and believed that putting homeless people at the site, far away from community and services, was akin to an act of banishment. “It feels like a punch in the face for a mayor who has said that she understands the Workhouse, who was calling for the closure of the Workhouse before the Close the Workhouse campaign even existed, to once again attempt to disappear the people that are seen as undesirable to a facility that we know is not fit for human habitation,” Bordeaux said. 

Aerial view of the site of the former Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, in St. Louis (Re-Envisioning the Workhouse Report,

The Close the Workhouse campaign is continuing to press the mayor and the city’s Board of Alders to reconsider and implement the recommendations laid out in the report, and the mayor’s office stresses that no official decisions have been made yet regarding the site, “If it can be changed, I want to change it,” said Jada Scaife, another community design organizer for the Reenvisioning the Workhouse steering committee who also spent time in the jail. But, they added, “they already heard us—that’s what the report was for—and they still chose to go the way they went.” 

Both the report process, and the fracas that has accompanied the revelation of the city’s new plan for the site, illustrate the possibilities that arise when prisons and jails close, as well as the conflicts that likely accompany any serious discussion over what’s next. Is the ground a jail sits on a plot of land like any other, with the potential to provide a practical, stopgap fix to another ongoing municipal crisis? Or should it be treated with more reverence, akin to former sites of racial terror or confinement that have been commemorated with creative memorial projects? Should it be a place of remembrance?

Over the past two decades as the U.S. has begun to reevaluate the harsh approach to criminal justice that ballooned carceral populations in the 1980s and 1990s, prisons and jails have closed their doors across the country, leading to a reduction of at least 81,000 beds, according to an analysis from The Sentencing Report. “There are active closure conversations happening this year in California and New York, Virginia, Washington state,” said Nicole D. Porter, the advocacy director at the Sentencing Project and the author of two reports on prison closure and repurposing. 

Porter has observed that many closed carceral facilities end up holding migrants for ICE or otherwise furthering carceral purposes. But she has also documented a small but growing number of prisons and jails that have undergone adaptive reuse processes, transforming into upscale mixed-use developments, whiskey distilleries, film studios, homeless shelters, and more. 

The vast majority of these end up as for-profit spaces, and some have even seemed to capitalize on the building’s past in a way that invites accusations of particularly poor taste. Take “The Cell Block” hotel in Clifton, Texas, which invites guests to “break the chains of monotony” and promises “luxurious solitary confinement,” as Harper’s reported recently. In her report, Porter notes that Virginia organizers criticized one adaptive reuse project in Lorton, Virginia, for planning a “Nightmare Prison” haunted house event for Halloween just a few months after George Floyd’s murder. 

A few projects have involved community participation or discussion around community reinvestment—the idea that proceeds from future site operations should go toward building up services in the neighborhoods where most incarcerated people come from. In 2019, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms hired the Oakland-based abolitionist design firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to reimagine the Atlanta City Detention Center, in what the firm called the city’s “largest and most transparent community engagement process.”

Ultimately, the process stalled; today, the jail remains open. And Porter notes that she hasn’t yet seen successful examples of governments requiring companies to allocate funds towards community programs. “I think it’s something that needs to happen,” she said. “But at the end of the day, there’s not very many of these discussions happening… from my perspective, any outcome that permanently takes offline carceral capacity is a good outcome at this point.” 

Given this landscape, the Reenvisioning the Workhouse process was charting largely unexplored territory. Three justice-oriented design firms facilitated the process, and the steering committee’s core group consisted of six formerly incarcerated locals and organizers, including Bordeaux. It also included several people who lived near, had worked at, or had family members formerly incarcerated at the Workhouse. 

To come up with an initial round of ideas for the future of the jail and its land, participants canvassed neighborhoods, held community meetings, distributed flyers, and solicited input via social media. They took the initial batch of ideas they got, winnowed them down, sent them back out to procure people’s thoughts on more concrete proposals, and then worked with the city to examine whether the ideas were practically feasible. The end result would be a detailed, 64-page report, to be presented to the city, with concrete recommendations for the site’s future. 

Illustrations of possible future uses and programing at the Workhouse site (Re-Envisioning the Workhouse Report,

Local organizations also participated in the process. Kristian Blackmon, the coalition coordinator at the housing justice organization Homes For All’s St. Louis chapter, told Bolts that in her informal conversations with the group’s base, mostly low-income tenants, many people liked the idea of replacing the Workhouse with a green space that could benefit the surrounding area, which is predominantly Black. Others, Blackmon said, just wanted to demolish the building. 

For Bordeaux, the process was personally challenging given her past experience at the jail. “From the moment I stepped out of the building, I wanted to burn the Workhouse to the ground and salt the earth,” she told Bolts. “I think that the facility itself, and the land, has had such a horrific legacy that I at first was having a difficult time wrapping my brain around how it could be anything positive or useful.”

Bordeaux credited the careful process and the various people involved with helping expand her imagination. Ultimately, she said, “we were able to come up with things that I am comfortable with, and other directly impacted people are comfortable.”

As they got to work building out the report, the complexities of incorporating the views of a wide range of stakeholders—including people with no direct or indirect experience of incarceration—were encapsulated in one discussion over the prospect of turning the site into an animal shelter, with some amount of transitional housing for their unhoused pet owners, who tend to be blocked from nearly all other shelters. While the report notes that the idea received “overwhelming public support” from the broader community, participants who’d spent time in the Workhouse detected an uglier subtext: “We were treated like animals there,” one said in response. Meanwhile, Scaife worried that including any housing recommendation on the site, however conditional, would open the door for the city to turn the entire site into housing. “Us saying that anything could live there made it where it was basically saying it’s okay to live there, period,” they told Bolts. After an emotional discussion, the committee ultimately decided to endorse the animal shelter option.

An additional challenge centered around the site’s isolation and possible environmental hazards; the Workhouse is located in an industrial zone along a truck corridor, and the soil it sits on contains contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and other potentially dangerous chemicals. Any earnest attempt to transform carceral facilities will likely come up against the reality that prisons and jails tend to be built on remote, undesirable land: A 2017 report by Truthout and the Earth Island Journal found that at least 589 prisons in the U.S. are located within 3 miles of a federal Superfund site. 

Given the site’s dark past—Arch City Defenders has documented at least seven people who died at the jail between 2009 and 2019—and concerns around pollution, the report ultimately lays out a vision that largely does not recommend services for community members on site. Instead, it recommends the creation of a community resource hub somewhere closer to the heart of St. Louis.

For the Workhouse itself, the report lays out a range of options; the animal shelter, for one, plus solar panels, prairie restoration, or industrial uses that could benefit the community indirectly. It additionally suggests the erection of a marker memorializing the site.

Rendering of a potential repurposed use of the site as an industrial production center (Re-Envisioning the Workhouse Report,

The report team knew that these recommendations were ambitious. The city had never promised to implement the report’s conclusions, but some team members were hopeful given the fact that the city had initiated the process in the first place. They were similarly cheered by the extent to which officials dug into feasibility as the process unfolded, looking into every major idea to make sure it was viable. But the visioning process had also unearthed St. Louisans’ frustrations about participating in public processes only to see no real results or impact. As part of a “General process recommendation,” the report advises: “Community members have expressed being tired of repeatedly saying what they need only to end up in a report or recommendation that seem to only be followed when convenient, seen and celebrated at a meeting, or potentially put away on a shelf.” 

Last August, participants were about halfway through the Reenvisioning the Workhouse process: after going through one round of community outreach and feedback, they were preparing to embark on a second round to sharpen their recommendations for the site. However, unbeknownst to the steering committee, the city of St. Louis was exploring its own ideas for the old jail. 

Emails between members of the city’s Board of Public Service, obtained by Bolts through a public records request, show that they discussed hiring an engineering firm to perform an environmental review of the site as early as mid-August. “I want these tests to verify that neither the soil or air contains anything that would prohibit the construction of this tiny home village for the unhoused,” the board’s president wrote on Aug. 15. “Please keep me in the loop as time is of the essence.” Two days later, he followed up, asking for an update to pass on to the mayor’s office.

The firm sent a work proposal to the city on Aug. 29 and completed its report in December. But the steering committee says it didn’t learn of the plan until late March,, almost two months after they had released their own report. After extensive participation from the city throughout the process, and signals from the mayor that she supported the idea of deeper change, many felt betrayed. One activist pointed to Jones’ own words in 2022, when the Workhouse closed, that the step wasn’t just a reform, but rather “a transformation of our city’s approach to public safety.” 

“You have no idea how incredibly frustrating it is to take time and energy and blood and sweat and tears and go through this entire process only to find out that it was just something [Jones] was checking off a to-do list,” Bordeaux told Bolts

City officials in St. Louis have emphasized practical considerations in their decision to place a shelter at the Workhouse site. They stressed that local ordinances requiring the signed consent of at least 50 percent of nearby business owners or registered voters in order to open a homeless shelter in more populated areas of St. Louis leave them with few other options. “There aren’t just ‘challenges’ to establishing homeless shelters in more populated areas, it’s downright impossible right now in the city because of ordinances already on the books,” a spokesperson for the mayor, Conner Kerrigan, told Bolts via email. At a recent meeting, one alderperson said, referencing the area’s frigid winters, “I don’t want to spend time in any jail, but I’d rather spend time inside the Workhouse than freeze to death outside.” Later in the meeting the CEO of an existing tiny homes project testified that they can be a good way to get people back on their feet. 

Rendering of a potential repurposed use of the site as an animal shelter(Re-Envisioning the Workhouse Report,

Blackmon of Homes For All agrees that the city’s housing and homelessness crisis is severe. St. Louis, she said, “ranks extremely low for affordable housing for folks of color, specifically Black folks.” The city hasn’t successfully opened a new shelter in years, and “the ones that we do have aren’t necessarily the best,” she said. “Most of them are almost always consistently full. So there’s always additional need.” But Blackmon also felt that the city’s complaints about lack of options were disingenuous: “Most of those in positions of power do not want shelters in their wards.” Individual alderpeople have frequently opposed the construction of homeless housing near them; last year, the mayor opposed an alderperson’s proposal to lower the signature threshold for establishing new shelters. 

Blackmon acknowledged the tension that the tiny homes plan has provoked for local groups working on housing and homelessness. “What do you do when you might have a space that can house some people—but then it’s also like, at what cost?” she asked. “People don’t deserve…to be put in an area that’s secluded from many other people in the community,” she went on, “and to be somewhere on a piece of land that has a horrific history of violence and death and oppression.” 

The city has downplayed environmental concerns about the site, noting that the environmental review recommended dumping gravel on top of the contaminated soil. Jones has committed to not using the space for carceral purposes, which Porter of The Sentencing Project stressed is a victory in itself. The mayor has also indicated that she will support the placement of a community memorial on the site alongside the tiny homes, one of the report’s recommendations.

Bordeaux, though, feels that the other suggestions are more materially significant. “I think the way that we really honor the legacy of the Workhouse, and the harm that it’s caused in so many communities, is by addressing the needs that cause most of us to end up in the Workhouse in the first place,” she said. Asked whether the mayor’s office would commit to funding community investment or reparations for Workhouse survivors, Kerrigan referenced the likelihood of a memorial and also mentioned the mayor’s new Office of Violence Prevention).

Organizers with the Close the Workhouse campaign say they’ll continue to fight to get its recommendations implemented and advance their goals, including reparations for people who’ve been held in the Workhouse, throughout the ongoing city budget allocation process.

The idea of reparations, especially, raises the question of what it means to try to heal the scars of one jail, to memorialize one site, when the larger structure it belongs to persists. St. Louis has another jail, the City Justice Center, where the Workhouse’s remaining population were transferred when it closed in 2022.

“Some of the same issues that were affecting people in the Workhouse are affecting people at CJC—like being indiscriminately maced, not having access to competent medical care, COs turning off the water of people who are being detained in CJC as punishment,” Bordeaux said. “I look forward to the campaign to close CJC also, if there ever is one—it will have my one thousand percent support.”

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