Missouri prisoners and prison staff are facing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most staff members are considered essential and must spend their time around hundreds of offenders each day.
Offenders who test positive for the coronavirus or show symptoms are isolated from the rest of the prison population. Social distancing and quarantine policies are challenging, however, in facilities designed to house and feed hundreds of people. Limited supplies and tests do not help either.
"I think they’re really trying, at least from the top, but it’s kind of a losing battle," said Edna Harden, chair of Missouri CURE, an inmate advocacy group. "Social distancing is just impossible in prison."
There have been 44 positive COVID-19 cases among offenders, 26 cases among Missouri Department of Corrections staff, 19 among prison staff and seven among non-prison staff since March 23. Most of those have come from the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston. All but one of the offender cases and 14 staff cases have come from that facility.
"At Southeast Correctional Center, we have tested 269 offenders and have done target testing of 178 staff members," Department of Corrections spokesperson Karen Pojmann said. "Additional staff have sought testing on their own through their health care providers. Of those tested, most are asymptomatic. Many have recovered and have tested negative."
Like many other entities, testing has been limited in prisons. Of the approximately 25,000 offenders in the state only 513 have been tested for COVID-19 across 20 facilities.
"We’re screening all offenders for COVID-19 symptoms and testing all offenders who have symptoms," Pojmann said. "At our reception and diagnostic centers, we have been isolating incoming offenders and testing anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms or who is believed to have been exposed to the virus."
If there is an outbreak, which means more than two positive cases in a residential facility, then the department target tests entire housing wings and large groups of staff.
Although Corizon, the department’s on-site healthcare provider, and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have COVID-19 tests available, the limited testing does not likely paint an entirely accurate picture of the total cases, Missouri Corrections Officers Association spokesperson Tim Cutt said.
"If you aren’t doing the tests you don’t know what your real numbers are," he said.
The department has a limited supply of N95 masks, but officers only are required to wear them when entering an isolation unit or interacting with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, is awaiting test results or has symptoms of the virus.
"There is a global shortage of N95 masks and a high demand for them in health care settings," Pojmann said. "For this reason, the CDC is not recommending use of full PPE at all times, by all people in settings where there are no known cases of COVID-19."
Missouri Vocational Enterprise has manufactured about 200,000 fabric masks and about 7,000 gallon jugs and 18,000 four-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer to use in the facilities and other state agencies, Pojmann said.
Jacque Sample, Democratic candidate in the 44th District Missouri House race, said she has heard a number of complaints from prison staff and inmate advocacy groups regarding inadequate testing, limited supplies and faulty screening processes.
One of Sample’s main concerns, she said, is the effectiveness of the fabric masks given to staff and inmates, she said.
"I think the staff are doing what they can with what they’ve been provided, which is not adequate," Sample said. "Everyone working in those facilities recognize the great risks, specifically in regard to COVID-19. They are taking [a risk] by going into work every and they’re angry because they don’t have protection."
Though prison staff are screened before entering, the thermometers are not always accurate and thermometer guards are limited, like many other supplies, Cutt said.
Sample said she has heard similar anecdotes from prison staff who have recorded temperatures as low as 85 degrees.
Adam Albach, the legislative liaison for the Department of Corrections, responded to Sample in an email confirming that there have been issues with screening thermometers, but that the department was working to replace the equipment.
Harden and Cutt have heard of instances of guards choosing not to wear masks even when they are available.
"There is just too much autonomy between the prisons," Cutt said. "You have certain prisons that are following CDC guidelines put out by the director, and some of them just, flat-out, aren’t."
Another issue the prisons have faced during the pandemic is access to cleaning supplies and soap for inmates, Harden said.
"Once a week they get a hotel-sized bar of soap," she said. "If they don’t have money to buy more soap then they have use that for washing their hands and body for a whole week."
Though Harden and Cutt have concerns about the corrections department handling of the situation, they are aware that the COVID-19 situation is unique and unprecedented.
"This is a whole new ball game for every state agency," Cutt said. "We’ve all got a learning curve."