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Inmates complain as Missouri prisons deal with shortages of apparel, hygiene products and other items

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Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

New corrections officers continue their training after boot camp on April 4, 2019, at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo. They are from left: Bethany Henson, Nicholas Viera, and Timothy Snider. They were acting as if they were checking on inmates in their cells, even though they were in an empty cell building. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — As Gov. Mike Parson looks to a task force to help resolve ongoing supply chain issues, one of his own departments is dealing with shortages brought on by pandemic-related changes in the economy.

At the Missouri Department of Corrections, stores where inmates can buy snacks, clothing and hygiene items have had empty shelves periodically since COVID-19 sent shockwaves through the shipping and manufacturing sectors.

“At various times over the last two years, the department has experienced temporary supply chain shortages in nearly everything sold in the canteens, but thankfully, the shortages generally have not affected several items simultaneously,” said DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann.

Lori Curry, who founded an organization called Missouri Prison Reform, said she’s been hearing complaints from prisoners about the shortages for months.

Curry, who is an advocate for inmates and prison staff, said inmates have been having trouble getting food and hygiene items, as well as clothing.

“In some cases, the only winter clothes available were size small or 4X,” said Curry, a Joplin resident. “At Bonne Terre, prison staff have been allowed to purchase items for the commissary from other sources to get the stores stocked.”

Last year, she said prison officials blamed the low supplies on high demand after inmates received stimulus checks from the federal government as part of the response to the pandemic.

“They said the prisoners bought too much,” Curry said.

Now, however, Curry said prisoners are being told the shortages are a supply chain issue.

Retailers nationwide have struggled to keep shelves fully stocked with all kinds of everyday necessities, slowing down the production and distribution of goods. At the same time, consumer demand remains robust.

Parson, in response, has formed a task force to search for solutions to the delays.

The supplier for the commissaries is Bridgeton-based Keefe Group, which on its website says it serves more than 650,000 prisoners across the nation, supplying a range of items for the stores, from cans of tuna to extra underwear. They have a line of cellblock-ready electronics, including compact disc players, watches and clocks.

Since 2019, Keefe Group has been paid more than $2.4 million by Missouri for its work, according to state payroll records.

The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In Illinois, Keefe recently lost its contract with the prison system over issues with the bidding process.

Supply issues also have affected commissary items in Illinois, where advocates for prisons say widespread shortages are common.

According to a December report by WBEZ, inmates have seen stocks of laundry detergent, socks, boxers and shirts depleted for several months.

To accommodate the shortages, the Illinois Department of Corrections distributed free care packages to prisoners containing hygiene items and food products worth about $25.

In Missouri, inmates have been most frustrated by shortages in shoes, televisions, chips and soda, Pojmann said.

But, she added, “The procurement team has found other vendors with available inventory to provide temporary relief or acceptable alternatives when possible. At times, they have even contacted warehouses across the country on a daily basis to find out what products were in stock and to place orders immediately.”

Pojmann agreed that the commissaries play an important role in tamping down dissent behind bars.

“Minimizing disruptions in product availability definitely boosts morale and helps to keep facility operations running smoothly,” Pojmann said.

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