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‘Leaving us to die’: Missouri inmates allege state has mismanaged response to COVID

‘Leaving us to die’: Missouri inmates allege state has mismanaged response to COVID

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Bonne Terre Prison

The Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center is a large prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., 60 miles south of St. Louis. Photo by Jesse Bogan, jbogan@Post-Dispatch.com

Several people incarcerated in Missouri prisons believe the state’s department of corrections has failed to properly manage its response to the coronavirus, which has now killed 40 inmates.

Jails and prisons have been a hotbed for the spread of the disease. According to the COVID Prison Project, more than 308,000 inmates across the country have tested positive and 1,832 have died.

Missouri’s 22 facilities have recorded a total of 5,059 cases, including 40 deaths.

“People who are incarcerated are at greater risk of COVID-19 for a number of reasons including on average, people who are incarcerated tend to have at least one chronic condition,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who co-founded the COVID Prison Project. “The conditions of confinement that are present in a lot of prison and jail facilities, meaning dormitory, congregate style living facilities, overcrowded conditions and very little ability to engage in quarantine or medical isolation — that intersection really has caused the public health disaster that we see in prisons and jails across the country.”

A man housed at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center said some staff continue to go unmasked. Corrections officers and inmates must wear face coverings indoors when social distancing isn’t possible, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections website.

“Their actions put our lives in danger,” the man wrote from the prison in Bonne Terre. “Someone must be held accountable. We are still human and deserve to be protected.”

The facility, about one hour south of St. Louis, has 54 active cases. Another 466 people have recovered.

The Kansas Department of Corrections has had a similar number of cases as Missouri at 5,202. Kansas prisons have been sites of major outbreaks including 1,355 positive cases at Hutchinson Correctional Facility and 993 at Lansing Correctional Facility. But with 12 deaths, Kansas prisons have had significantly fewer compared to Missouri.

Missouri officials say the number of deaths has more to do with who is at risk of contracting and becoming ill from the virus.

Seventy-five percent of the people who have died in Missouri prisons were older than 60, and all but two had serious or terminal underlying health conditions, Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.

“Nearly all COVID-related deaths in the incarcerated population resulted from a statewide surge of COVID that occurred in every part of Missouri in October and November,” she said. “Infection surges outside prisons affect populations inside prisons.”

Twenty inmate deaths attributed to the coronavirus were reported in November.

Pojmann did say the department has taken significant steps to curb the spread of the virus including mass testing. It is also in the process of installing more than 1,450 air purifying devices and 40 electrostatic disinfectant sprayers.

Earlier this month, the department also began testing wastewater at all facilities, Pojmann said. The early outbreak detection leads to increased testing and faster viral containment, she said.

But incarcerated individuals are still worried about the conditions they face.

A man at Jefferson City Correctional Center said he tested positive in November. He was one of nearly 350 cases at that facility.

“The last four weeks have been really terrible for me,” he said earlier this month, after he was released from COVID-19 isolation and then a stint in segregated housing. “It was scary!!!! They just throw you in a room and leave you in there to die. The nurse don’t check on you for fourteen days. They don’t check our vital signs.”

Women at Chillicothe Correctional Center said they were fearful of another outbreak because staff don’t wear masks consistently, quarantine guidelines weren’t being followed and social distancing wasn’t being enforced. The women’s prison has had nearly 300 cases. One woman said she planned on filing a grievance.

“I feel like they don’t truly care about what happens to us,” she wrote.

Another man at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center submitted several grievances and earlier this month, resorted to filing a civil action in St. Francois County.

In the 48-page petition, LeVar Aikens said “staff are blatantly putting our lives at risk, leaving us to die.”

He contracted the virus and said he was left to suffer without proper medical care while experiencing difficulty breathing. He also alleges that quarantine guidelines are not being followed, that the virus has caused staff shortages that endanger everyone’s safety and that there are not adequate cleaning protocols.

The petition asks that he and others, including those who already have a parole release date, be considered for compassionate release.

Advocates have also called for some inmates to be released in the wake of the virus, but Gov. Mike Parson has previously said that is not something he will consider.

For many prisoners, the vaccine is the next best hope.

Prisoners fall into phase two of the vaccine’s rollout in Missouri, following health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, high risk individuals, first responders and essential workers including corrections officers.

Brinkley-Rubinstein with the COVID Prison Project said 14 states have signaled that some or all incarcerated people will be included in phase one of their vaccine plans.

“It’s imperative that states prioritize incarcerated people and staff too, to receive the vaccine,” she said.

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