JEFFERSON CITY — Advocates representing female inmates in the Missouri prison system are raising concerns about an alarming outbreak of COVID-19 at one of the state’s lock-ups.
On Friday, the Missouri Department of Corrections reported 189 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Chillicothe Correctional Center, making the all-women facility the worst among Missouri prisons for the virus.
On Monday, the number of inmates testing positive grew to 195.
Advocates say the high numbers have made elderly prisoners more vulnerable to the disease.
“The women are understandably scared. They can’t visit with their families. Many are sick with other illnesses and are at high risk of serious illness from the virus,” said Amy E. Breihan, the Missouri co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that advances criminal justice reform through civil litigation.
They also said the rapid spread of the virus could overwhelm the prison health care vendor and local medical providers.
“We are concerned that there aren’t enough ventilators,” said John Ammann, professor emeritus at the St. Louis University Legal Clinics. The clinics represent several women at the prison, some who are in their 60s and 70s.
“One thing is clear: These women, many who have been in prison for more than 20 years, did not bring the virus into the prison,” Ammann said.
The coalition is calling on Gov. Mike Parson to release some women from the prison in Chillicothe to relieve pressure on the health care system.
“This includes those women over 55 years of age, and those who have been approved for parole and are just awaiting release, as well as any other prisoners who are not a threat to the community,” Ammann said.
Parson has said prisoner releases are not under consideration.
“A prison sentence should not be a death sentence. But that will be the result for at least some of Missouri’s prisoners if government inaction continues,” said Megan Crane, RSMJC co-director.
The presence of the coronavirus at Chillicothe came to light on July 1 when three cases were confirmed, triggering a cancellation of visiting sessions.
Offenders who test positive are isolated until they test negative. Staff who test positive are sent home on leave and must test negative twice before returning to work.
All staff who have close contact with a positive person are sent home for two weeks of quarantine.
Masks are mandated throughout the facility when social distancing can’t be practiced.
Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said about 170 prisoners were transferred from the women’s prison in Vandalia to Chillicothe earlier this month.
Both are operating below capacity, allowing both facilities to have “ample space” for isolation units and isolation wings.
“Offender transfers from Vandalia to Chillicothe began July 8, and newcomers have been separated from other offenders,” she said. “There is no known connection between the COVID-19 outbreak in Chillicothe and offenders from Vandalia.”
Sherry Weldon, director of the Livingston County Health Department, said DOC is handling the situation in-house.
“We work with them, but we don’t have any jurisdiction over them,” Weldon said. “I think they are doing a good job, from what I know about it.”
Along with the spread of the virus in the prison system, other state facilities are seeing growth in the number of cases.
At the Department of Mental Health, which operates psychiatric facilities and homes for the developmentally disabled, there have been 55 new cases reported this month. Most of those are employees.
At the Division of Youth Services, which operates detention centers for juveniles, there have been 20 new cases in the past month.
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