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Radicalized at the Workhouse

The criminal legal system almost took my life from me. The anger that came after now fuels my life’s work.


I am a nurse-turned-community organizer, working to tear down the very systems and institutions that nearly ruined my life. When I look back over those years of my life, I get angry. But I let that anger fuel my activism.

My story, at least this part of my story, starts in 2009 when after several years of domestic violence, I had had enough. I did what everyone says you’re supposed to do: I took my four children and left. And in leaving I was suddenly a single parent with a single income and couldn’t afford the $1,600 a month in childcare cost. I was working as a nurse, making $18 an hour and clearing about $2,800 a month after taxes. But I literally couldn’t afford to pay my childcare and my rent in the same month. If I didn’t have childcare, I couldn’t go to work. And if I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t pay the rent or buy food. So I was stuck in this cycle of alternating eviction notices and my children being turned away from daycare. I lost two jobs this way. After many months of pleading with their father for help and exhausting every avenue I had for help — the state turned down my request for help with childcare costs because I made $57 too much — I made a choice.

After losing the second job, I started getting unemployment benefits from the state. But then I started a third job while continuing to draw those unemployment benefits. The $350 I received weekly for unemployment benefits is literally how I was able to afford childcare. I knew I was committing a crime, but my choices were to commit this crime or go back to the man who picked up a hot skillet off of a stove and burned me all over my body with it during an argument.

I knew I was committing a crime, but my choices were to commit this crime or go back to the man who picked up a hot skillet off of a stove and burned me all over my body with it during an argument.

I continued overdrawing unemployment benefits for about 10 months. The kids got a little older, the daycare got a little cheaper, and, with a little more nursing experience under my belt, I was able to get a higher-paying nursing job — such that I was able to stop overdrawing unemployment benefits. About a year later, in 2011, my four children and I were driving back from a family reunion in Texas when I got pulled over in Oklahoma. You know how when you get pulled over and it takes the cop a little too long to come back to the car so you know something is wrong? When the cop finally came back to the car, he told me I had a felony warrant for my arrest for larceny. I didn’t even know what larceny was until he explained it to me. That Oklahoma cop dragged me out of the car in front of my children. I had to watch as they were placed in a Child Protective Services van and threatened that they had to be picked up by 9 a.m. the next morning, or they would be entered into the system. I spent 30 days in a solitary confinement cell in Oklahoma waiting to be extradited back to St. Louis. It wasn’t until I stood in front of a judge in St. Louis City a month later that I found out that I was being charged with overpayment of unemployment benefits, and my life flashed before my eyes.

In 2012, I accepted a negotiated deal for what in Missouri is known as a suspended imposition of a sentence, or SIS, which meant that I’d be placed on probation-like conditions that, after completed, would result in no criminal conviction on my record. I was told that this type of arrangement wouldn’t show up on my background check. I found out that was not true the very next month, when my job did their annual background check and asked me to resign because I now had a felony on my record for “stealing over $500.” Within six months, my nursing license was suspended. A month after that I was evicted from my home and would spend the next three years homeless. I had to send my children away to live with their father because I didn’t want them on the streets with me. After about two years, I was finally able to find a job as a home healthcare aide, making about $8 an hour. I held three of these jobs at once, and that’s how I barely survived.

I was finally reunited with my children in 2015, when I was able to afford a one-bedroom apartment on the southside of St. Louis. That reunion was short-lived: In March 2016, I was arrested again after a staffing error — my assigned officer left unexpectedly, and my reporting notices stopped coming — caused me to miss a visit with probation. That led to a probation violation and a felony warrant for my arrest. I was sent to the St. Louis Medium Security Institution — known in St. Louis as the Workhouse — to await a hearing with the judge to determine if my probation would be revoked or if I would be sentenced to 180 days “shock time” to teach me a lesson. The Workhouse is a notorious jail known for its inhumane conditions. For example, the infestation of rats and roaches, the black mold growing on the walls, toilets that don’t flush and showers that don’t work, water that smells and tastes funny — all of it resting on an otherwise empty plot of land in an industrial area of St. Louis. If you’re Black in St. Louis, you either know someone who’s been to the Workhouse or you’ve been there yourself.

I had heard all of the stories but couldn’t bring myself to fully believe them. Because, in my mind, surely there was no way in the world, in the 21st century, that we were keeping people, human beings, in these types of conditions. But I learned on my very first night that every single thing I had heard about the Workhouse was absolutely true. It was my time here that forever changed me. I became radicalized at the Workhouse.

Fast forward 30 days, and I now have a public defender, Sean Milford, who was able to get me out of the Workhouse. But as a consequence of my one missed appointment with my probation officer, my probation was extended by one year. At the end of that one year, my probation officer once again tried to revoke my probation because I had not been able to pay off all of my restitution. Back in the courtroom, I didn’t have a lawyer because in Missouri you’re not entitled to an attorney if you’re facing a probation or parole revocation. So I showed up that day to ask the judge for a continuance, to have more time to find me an attorney. When I showed up to court and no one was there except the bailiff, he told me to have a seat and that the judge and the attorneys were in chambers. I sat there for three hours, waiting. When the door finally opened, I looked up and I saw Sean Milford, the same attorney who had gotten me out of the Workhouse. He said he recognized my name and saw I didn’t have a lawyer, so he decided to speak up on my behalf. He went on to tell me that I qualified for this thing called a Bazell motion, named after a woman, Amanda Bazell, who had won a big case. He explained to me that in 2016, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the statute that I had been prosecuted under was unconstitutional, and he thought his office could help me get my sentence vacated.

A month later, when we stood in front of the judge, the judge agreed that I should not have been charged with a felony — that I should have only been charged with a misdemeanor. The most amount of time I would have had to do on probation was two years; the misdemeanor wouldn’t have shown up on my nursing background check; I would have never been asked to resign from my job; my nursing license would have never been suspended; I wouldn’t have lost my house and wouldn’t have had to send my kids away. Prior to walking out of court on the day my record was wiped clean, I had big plans. I knew that after six years of dealing with the criminal legal system, I was once again going to be free. So I planned to celebrate all weekend. But instead, when I walked out of court that Friday, I went home and I cried all weekend because, fundamentally, my life had not changed. I still had three part-time $8-an-hour jobs. I still lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four kids. I had lost everything. And for what?

Actually, I didn’t lose it. It was taken from me.

It sounds cliché, but at the end of that weekend, I promised myself that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to trying to destroy the systems that destroyed me. And a couple of months later, I got a call from one of the attorneys at ArchCity Defenders to tell me that they were starting a campaign to close the Workhouse and ask me if I was interested. My answer was an enthusiastic, “Hell, yeah.” I needed an outlet in which to put all the anger I felt toward the criminal legal system, so I showed up to that first meeting — and I kept showing up. I showed up so much that eventually they asked me to be on the organizing team. And after about a year of being on the organizing team, I was offered the position of manager of community collaborations at ArchCity Defenders. Now it’s my job to help tear down the systems that tried to destroy me.

I don’t tell you this story because I want you to feel sorry for me. I tell you this story because I want you to be as angry as I am. I want you to be angry that I lost years of my life to a system that dehumanized me, neglected me, and tried to destroy me when what I really needed was help. I want you to be angry that I lost years with my children. I want you to be angry that I was robbed of the goals and dreams and ambitions I had for myself. I want you to be angry that the Missouri Supreme Court later threw up its hands and more or less said that the Bazell ruling, which could’ve fixed an injustice done to thousands of people, was just too big to deal with, so they were going to do nothing. I was one of about 100 people who were able to get their sentence vacated before the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that it wouldn’t be retroactive. I want you to be angry because angry can get shit done. Anger is a renewable energy source.

I don’t tell you this story because I want you to feel sorry for me. I tell you this story because I want you to be as angry as I am.

Anger is just as motivational as happiness or hope, and we should use it. My friend Rev. Michelle Higgins says that anger, when properly channeled and used for good, is righteous. Even Jesus got angry and flipped over tables. Look around: There is no shortage of injustices happening around us each and every day to draw from, to motivate. Whether it’s fighting to abolish a criminal legal system that has harmed so many; or fighting for funding and resources to go to people and communities instead of the police; or fighting to make sure that everyone who wants a home has one, or that no child has to go hungry; or climate change. Or, or, or, or. Just find an issue that makes you angry and then get up and go do something about it.

The anger I feel is channeled into the work I feel called to do — specifically, the Close the Workhouse campaign. The 30 days I spent in the Workhouse is where I was radicalized into doing this work, and the things I saw and experienced there drive me daily. I share my pain in the hopes that it can drive someone else. And that’s how my contribution to the campaign started — by telling my story. The more I and other members of the campaign told our stories of neglect, disinvestment, and, ultimately, being thrown away in the Workhouse, the more people listened and started questioning the failures we experienced. To question the arrest-and-incarcerate model. To question the cash bail and pretrial detention system. To wonder how to re-envision public safety; how to invest in people and communities; and how to build the St. Louis that we all deserve.

We built a base that rallied and protested at City Hall. We built a community that organized, testified, and packed Board of Aldermen meetings, resulting in a unanimous vote — 28 to 0 — to close the Workhouse. We built a movement that demanded that every candidate running for mayor in 2021 answer the question: Where do you stand on closing the Workhouse and re-envisioning public safety? And now, here we are, just a few short months from the Workhouse closing forever. That’s what I did with my anger. What will you do with yours?