Close the Workhouse!: An Interview with Inez Bordeaux
Inez Bordeaux had been through a lot in her life. A nurse and a mother of four, Inez experienced poverty, domestic violence, and homelessness, but she always knew she’d be OK. She always had confidence in her ability to bounce back. Until she was locked up in St. Louis’s Workhouse jail.
“The Workhouse,” she told us, “is the first time I felt hopeless. I was worried that I wasn't going to make it out of there.”
But Inez did make it out, and then she devoted her life to making sure that no one else ever has to experience what she experienced. Inez is part of the Close the Workhouse campaign and she spoke to us recently about why closing the Workhouse should matter to everyone.
What was it like being in the Workhouse?
I had never seen anything like the Workhouse in my life. The moment you walk in, you can just feel the hopelessness. You can feel the desperation. It's heavy. You can feel it in the air. I had heard about the Workhouse over the years—if you're Black in St. Louis, you either know somebody who's been in the Workhouse or you've been in the Workhouse. I had heard the stories, but I, like most people, thought that it was an exaggeration. It was absolutely not an exaggeration. Every single thing I heard about the Workhouse before I got there turned out to be true.
How did you wind up there?
It started back in 2009. There was a domestic-violence incident with my now ex-husband. I left him, I left with my four kids. To make a very long story short, I overdrew my unemployment benefits to pay for my daycare services. At that time, my kids were really little, and it cost $1600 a month for childcare. Without my husband's help, I could not pay it, not by myself. I applied for childcare assistance with the state, and I was turned down because I made $57 too much. By that point, I had already lost two jobs from not having reliable daycare. When I started a third job, I just kept drawing from the unemployment benefits, and that's how I paid for my daycare.
After about a year, I was able to get on my feet and I didn't need to do it anymore, so things stabilized. But I got pulled over for speeding in Oklahoma in 2011. The state trooper told me I had a felony warrant for my arrest for larceny. I was charged with overpayment of unemployment benefits.
I was placed on probation. My life took a crazy downward spiral. But by the time I ended up in the Workhouse in 2016, things were better. I had three minimum-wage, part-time jobs that I was using to stay afloat. The problem was, because I didn't make very much money, I couldn't really pay anything on my restitution. My probation officer tried to revoke my probation, and so I had a felony warrant for my arrest for violating the terms of my probation, and I was sent to the Workhouse. My bail was $25,000 and there was no way I could afford to pay it. I was there for 30 days.
Can you describe the conditions?
There's black mold growing on the walls in different places. It's infested with rats and roaches. It constantly leaks. The food looks like something you wouldn't give to an animal. And because I was all tearful and emotional about being in jail, the admitting nurse deemed me a suicide risk. When you're deemed a suicide risk, they put you in a cell by yourself. They take away all your clothes and they give you like a suicide smock. That's what they did. And they escorted me into a cell where they left me for the next three days.
By that point, I had been on probation since 2012. This was 2016. I was going on five years of probation. I had been through everything: my nursing license had been suspended, I had to send my kids away, I was homeless for three years. All throughout that time, I always knew that I was going to be OK, that I was going to come out on the other side, that I was going to be fine. It was just a matter of time. The Workhouse is the first time I felt hopeless. I was worried that I wasn't going to make it out of there.
Why are most people being held in the Workhouse?
Most of the people that are in the Workhouse haven't been convicted of anything. They've been accused of a crime and they are too poor to buy their freedom. What we've learned over the last couple of years is that St. Louis City judges had been pretty much just giving out arbitrary bail amounts, amounts so high that people can't afford to post their bail. My bail was $25,000. I was making $9 an hour and getting about 35 hours a week at work. There was no way I was going to be able to afford bail, and that's what I found with the women in the Workhouse. The women that I came in contact with, they had been accused of a crime, not convicted of a crime, and they just were too poor to be able to afford their bail. 90% of the people in the Workhouse we know for a fact are Black, and the average income of Black people in this city is $25,000. If you're given a bail of $25,000, $50,000, there's no way in the world that you can afford that. You can't.
So the system basically criminalizes poverty.
Without a doubt. If you are locking up people because they’re too poor to afford their bail, that's literally criminalizing poverty. If someone stole a pack of Pampers because they don't have enough money to buy them, that is a crime of poverty. Instead of locking people up and making their situation worse, we should be putting forth the resources so that crimes of poverty do not occur.
Can you talk about the effects of cash bail?
It destroys cities piece by piece. The ruling that came down recently [barring St. Louis judges from keeping people in jail simply because they can’t afford bail] is really a reminder for the judges that they have an obligation to make sure that people's constitutional rights are being respected, and the Constitution says you have the right to be free and fight your case. People should be able to keep their jobs, to be home with their families, to fight their case.
Cash bail has torn our city apart for generations. People think that incarceration just affects that one person behind bars. No—it affects our whole city, our whole country. That person losing their job puts a strain on their family, which puts a strain on their neighborhood, which puts a strain on their city. We're doing this to thousands and thousands of people every single day.
When you were released from the Workhouse, what made you realize that you needed to do something about this?
When I left the Workhouse, I spent the whole weekend crying. I was so angry and so frustrated, but I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what I could do.
So, a couple months after everything was over, I got a call from my lawyer at ArchCity Defenders, MJ, and he said, "Hey, Inez. We're starting a campaign. It's to close the Workhouse. Are you interested?” and I believe my exact words were, "Hell, yeah." He told me where the meeting was and I showed up. I told my story, and I've just been showing up ever since. It makes me feel like I'm doing something. I don't feel helpless like I did before.
Why is it so important to close the Workhouse?
Beyond the problems with cash bail, the Workhouse is the physical manifestation of white supremacy and racism. This city is 49% Black, yet we make up 90% of the people in the Workhouse. Its very existence is proof of how unjust and racist the system is.
We put so much money into prisons, into policing. What's a better use for that money?
St. Louis spends $16 million a year on the Workhouse—that's $16 million that we can reinvest right here in our communities. If you have people who are committing crimes of poverty, an answer to that problem is you bring those people out of poverty. How do you do that? You do it through job programs, through training, through educational programs. There should be child-resource centers, affordable childcare providers. That $16 million that we spend every single year can be used to combat some of these things that are causing people to end up in the Workhouse to begin with.
Are you optimistic about the Close the Workhouse campaign?
Yes! We're gaining ground every single day. Our support’s been growing among political leaders throughout the city. There have been multiple campaigns over the last 50, 60 years that have tried to close the Workhouse, but this particular campaign is the closest we've ever come, and we haven't even hit our stride yet.
If people don't live in St. Louis, why should they care about the Workhouse?
This isn't just a St. Louis problem. This is a nationwide problem. I would encourage everyone to go to our website and read the report. We have a plan for what comes after closing the Workhouse, and we hope that it can be a model for other people around the country who want to close the hellhole jail in their city. Read the report, donate to the campaign, and then see how they can get involved in an effort similar to ours where they live.
Inez is right. This is about more than one story. This is about more than one jail in one city. This is a problem facing the entire country. But together, we can do something about it. Take action now to help transform the criminal justice system.