ACLU-MO History Spotlight: Prison Conditions

Criminal Justice Reform

The ACLU of Missouri’s archive includes thousands of letters, such as these, received from jails and prisons across the state.

Examples of letters received from people incarcerated in Missouri. ACLU-MO Records (wua00355) series 3, box 20, Jail Conditions 1985-1986

letter from ACLU quoted in blog post

Click to read full letter.
ACLU-MO Records (wua00355) Series 3, Box 20, Jail Conditions 1985-86


The ACLU does not represent people in criminal cases. Rather, it documents and looks for patterns of civil rights violations occurring in jails and prisons. Investigative reports are published to give the public, lawmakers, and prison officials accurate information about overlooked rights violations.

This legal distinction can be frustrating for people in prisons facing inhumane conditions.

“Explanations are cold comfort to people who are suffering,” an ALCU legal assistant wrote in reply to a letter received from Butler County, Missouri. “If we had a million dollars or even a small part of that sum we could do a lot more than we are doing now. Lawsuits are expensive and time consuming and currently we are using volunteer lawyers who give their time when we wage a case. We are neither oblivious to your problems nor are we in cahoots with the offending officials. …I can only reiterate that with our resources we are doing our best. Clearly we will not be in time to help your situation or your fellow prisoners. I know this doesn’t make your situation any better. So many of our cases take years to go through the courts. It is an evil of our justice system. But I do want you to know we’re working at it.”

Human Rights in St. Louis Jails

One of the longest-running efforts of the ACLU-MO was focused on the conditions of incarceration in the city of St. Louis, particularly the “old city jail” and “workhouse” buildings. This started with efforts to end overcrowded conditions and then expanded to look at overall conditions.


People held in St. Louis city’s old jail at Clark & 14th Street faced extreme overcrowding. In a class action lawsuit filed by one of incarcerated men, a federal judge ordered 228 as the maximum number of inmates. In the years following, this amount was regularly surpassed and crowding continued.


The ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed Tyler v. Schweitzer on behalf of inmates facing the same overcrowding in the jail and other buildings in the system. For 17 years, lawyer Frank Sussman worked on this case, making it one of the ACLU of Missouri’s longest-running legal cases.


St. Louis city officials broke ground for a larger replacement jail. This was a step toward providing humane conditions for the most vulnerable people detained—those unable to afford cash-bail and jailed before trial in St. Louis city.

Front cover of Liberties, 1999. ACLU-MO Records (wua00355)


The ACLU of Eastern Missouri published Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers. Read the full report (pdf) here:

outline of person sitting behind jail bars

ACLU-MO is one of several local organizations supporting efforts to end the use of the medium-security jail, also known as the “workhouse.” The #Closetheworkhouse campaign was started in 2018 by grassroots organizers.

Supporting this effort follows the long-running focus of the ACLU-MO on rights of prisoners, as well as highlighting race issues (as a disproportionate number of those detained are African Americans) and the discrimination faced by trans* and queer people in detention.

As of July 14, 2020, measures were pending with the Board of Aldermen of St. Louis to close this institution, which costs an average of $16 million a year, and currently houses 92 people.


What We Don’t Know: An Investigative Report On Deaths In Custody, ACLU-MO, 2020

Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses in St. Louis Correctional Centers, ACLU-MO 2009

Close the Workhouse (original plan), 2018

ACLU-MO @ 100

This post is part of a series in recognition of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri’s centennial year (1920-2020). Read more stories at:

If you have a question about this post or other topics related to St. Louis history, I can be reached at or on Twitter: @mrectenwald.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.