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Activist Kayla Reed Describes Witnessing ‘Inhumane Conditions’ At St. Louis Jails

Kayla Reed remains steadfast on closing the Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse, and moving forward with criminal justice reform in St. Louis. For years, she protested to close the Workhouse and worked to convince area politicians that funds from servicing the Workhouse would be a better fit for community investment.

This past weekend, Reed and St. Louis leaders held a press conference after visiting the Workhouse and City Justice Center. There they observed the jails’ conditions and reiterated the need for reform.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis, joined host Sarah Fenske to share what she saw at the Workhouse and Justice Center.

“The part that is sticking with me was the conversations that we had with detainees — folks who are inside of the facility and the common practices of abuse, violations of their human rights, neglect in their experience,” Reed said about the Workhouse.

“We saw for ourselves leaky roofs; we saw for ourselves clogged sinks and toilets. We walked into the infirmary, and they had just mopped the floor. And then we were told by detainees that they were woken up the night before to do a deep clean of the facility — and it was still dirty,” Reed recalled.

She added that many of the stories and conditions she witnessed at the Workhouse were reminiscent of the experiences that sparked the movement by Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders and Bail Project St. Louis in 2017 to close the jail.

Reed said some of the detainees they spoke with have been awaiting trial for many months and years — “We even talked to someone who's been there almost nine years.”

Since late December, five protests have erupted at the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis. Reed noted the role COVID-19 played in the demonstrations.

“Folks were concerned about their safety, their lives and symptoms — and that's on top of the kind of daily inhumane conditions that they're dealing with where they're in a jail cell for 23½ hours out of the day … so we saw that these uprisings were kind of an intersection of these immediate concerns for their well-being and longer structural problems within our criminal legal system,” she explained.

Area leaders who went on the tour included Mayor Tishaura Jones, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.

“I hope that with the new sort of relationship that seems to be built between the mayor and the congressperson and the circuit attorney's office, they can figure out a process to move this quicker,” Reed said.

“In both jails, I talked to folks who were considering taking a plea because they were tired of sitting in jail pretrial. And that is a fueling tactic of mass incarceration: If we hold you too long, or we hold you long enough, you'll say, ‘I'll just take the felony because I'll get time served so I can get the hell out of this jail.’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.