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'We Wasn't Sentenced To Die': One Missouri Prison's COVID Outbreak Raises Concerns

An outbreak of COVID-19 cases at a prison at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre has some inmates and prison activists concerned about the conditions.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
An outbreak of COVID-19 cases at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre has some inmates and prison activists concerned about the conditions.

An outbreak of COVID-19 cases at one Missouri prison has made inmates such as Kenneth Clayton fearful.

“It's been tumultuous,” Clayton said. “I'm at a point where … I'm wondering will I really make it home to be with my family.”

The Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center is the most recent facility in the Missouri Department of Corrections to see a spike in cases, currently with 198 inmates at the Bonne Terre facility testing positive for COVID-19. In July, roughly 189 inmates tested positive at the Chillicothe Correctional Center. Those numbers have since dropped.

Clayton was serving his sentence at the Bonne Terre facility before he and dozens of other inmates were transferred in August. With his permission, St. Louis Public Radio obtained audio of a conversation between Clayton and a prison reform activist at EX-incarcerated People Organizing that took place before he was transferred to another prison.

Clayton said many Bonne Terre inmates were afraid. He said that even when inmates had COVID-like symptoms, they kept it to themselves.

“They feel like the prison in itself don't have they best interest at heart,” Clayton said. “And so, what do they do? They feel more safe being around the masses, because we will alert somebody if someone is really in distress.”

He said inmates’ biggest fear is to be isolated.

“Because not only is there no cure, there is no round-the-clock attention.”

Mass testing

In May, the department conducted mass testing for all inmates and staff at its facilities, amounting to more than 32,300 tests. After the full testing wrapped up in August, spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said in a statement that a “vast majority of cases are asymptomatic,” with 1.85% of the prison population testing positive.

Pojmann pointed out that at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, which is experiencing an outbreak, only about 7% of the population has tested positive, far below the positivity rate for all of Missouri. She said that early in the pandemic, the department created a “viral containment strategy” that includes limiting the number of people who come in contact with one another.

“Residents interact only with fellow residents of their own housing units and avoid contact with residents of other housing units, moving together to dining halls, recreation, etc.,” Pojmann said. “If an outbreak occurs, we are then able to quickly isolate it and prevent further spread throughout the facility.”

According to the most recent data from the department, eight facilities have no active inmate COVID-19 cases and 16 have fewer than five active cases.

The Bonne Terre facility is more susceptible, Pojmann said, because it’s an intake center. Despite the pandemic, Pojmann said, by law, the department is required to take in people from county jails and other states, and through revocations from probation and parole. As a result, new inmates are entering the system through its reception and diagnostic centers in Bonne Terre, Fulton, Vandalia and St. Joseph.

She said inmates are tested when first entering the system and 30 days before leaving it.

“This testing continues at all facilities,” Pojmann said. “Testing all offenders and staff in a housing unit or other contained area, known as boxed-in testing, is conducted any time an outbreak is suspected.”

Regarding the care of prisoners who do test positive, Pojmann said they have “around-the-clock access to on-site medical care” and receive prescribed medications.

“Anyone who became seriously ill from COVID or related conditions would be relocated to a hospital,” she said in an email.

A staffing shortage

The Department of Corrections has struggled in recent years with filling corrections officer positions, and the pandemic is not making it easier.

Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said the ongoing shortages are jeopardizing the health and safety of those on staff. He said corrections officers are expected to come to work regardless of concerns of being exposed to inmates who've tested positive for COVID-19.

“If you come in contact with somebody, you're not being quarantined out of the prison for 14 days any longer,” Cutt said. “You're just made to come to work, but you have to wear a mask during that 14 days. And they're doing that because they are so short staffed. They need people there.”

Currently, there are 37 active COVID-19 cases among staff members at the Bonne Terre facility.

The department’s policy, Pojmann said, is that staff members who test positive for COVID-19 are put on leave and can only return to work once they’ve tested negative. Corrections officers who’ve been exposed to an inmate who has tested positive are required to stay home and quarantine.

But the staffing shortage at the Bonne Terre facility has forced the department to transfer staff in from other facilities, while sending inmates to other prisons.

“They are farming in officers from other institutions to assist them with their daily duties,” Cutt said. “And it's good that they're doing that and they’re volunteering to do that to go and help their fellow staff out in a difficult time.”

Pojmann said transfers of inmates from the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center were necessary to ease some of the pressure on staff members due to the shortage and crowding.

She said transfers between prisons had been put on hold at the start of the pandemic in an effort to contain the spread. Only inmates whose tests came back negative are being transferred these days.

“We are ensuring that everyone is tested for COVID-19 before transfer,” Pojmann said. “We also have enough space in facilities to quarantine transfers apart from current residents.”

Still, Clayton, who was transferred from Bonne Terre in August, said many corrections officers were not taking the pandemic seriously.

“They mimic the words of the president,” he said. “They say this is a hoax. This is something that came from China.”

He said that some corrections officers were not wearing masks, washing their hands or wearing gloves.

Cutt said he couldn’t speak to whether there are officers who are being careless or taking the pandemic lightly. But he said the corrections officers who are concerned for their own well-being are following procedures.

"The ones that don't feel safe, they're the ones taking the actual initiative and the actions for themselves,” Cutt said. “It's the mask wearing. It's hand sanitizer. Keeping the work area clean. That's what they're doing for their own safety. And I've got to give them credit for that."

‘It costs to be saved’

Pojmann said that there are ample cleaning supplies at each prison, as well as a point person to make sure a sanitizing schedule is being followed. In Bonne Terre, the Missouri Vocational Enterprises manufactures cleaning and janitorial supplies that Pojmann said are distributed to inmates and staff and are “readily available.”

Yet Clayton and some other inmates and activists say that cleaning supplies have been “watered down” at the Bonne Terre facility, and that there aren’t visible signs encouraging social distancing or hand-washing.

“It costs to be saved,” Clayton said.

Maria Miller, the founder of "Our Lives Matter" and a core leader of EX-incarcerated People Organizing, said that incarcerated people have told her that healthy inmates have been housed with those who’ve tested positive and are even required to clean their cells.

The mother of one inmate at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center called Miller in August and sent a letter that described how her son had been transferred to five different housing units in 30 days. In that time, the mother said he had to clean the cell of someone who tested positive using his own soap, water and towel.

“That's not going to clean germs,” Miller said. “Now this is a cell where people have tested positive for COVID. So there's no cleaning supplies around. They say guards are making fun like, 'Oh, stay away, he has COVID.' That's no way you treat people.”

The mother said that on Aug. 17, her son called her to say he tested positive for COVID himself.

With the mother’s permission, Miller shared that letter and other concerns with the department’s constituent services and later with St. Louis Public Radio.

Pojmann said she is aware of the letter but could not discuss an inmate’s medical information because it’s confidential.

“I can assure you that the concerns were addressed the day after the message was received as well as before it was received,” Pojmann said.

She said constituent services spoke with a family member on Aug. 21.

In regard to how the cells are cleaned, Pojmann said inmates clean cells they occupy and are given cleaning supplies to do so. Isolation cells are sanitized by trained cleaners who wear PPE when those cells are no longer occupied.

But Miller said it doesn’t add up. “Think about something. If you got cleaning supplies, why would you use your own soap that you pay for and water to clean a nasty cell?”

Differences from prison to prison

While Bonne Terre is dealing with an outbreak, other Missouri prisons have far fewer positive cases or none at all. Miller believes those facilities are following protocols more closely.

Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, agrees that the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 is not consistent across the board. He too said that inmates who have tested positive or have been around someone who’s tested positive are sharing cells with healthy inmates.

“One prison in particular, if you get transferred into this prison, you're in quarantine for 14 days with a cellie (cellmate) that's been there for years,” Cutt said. “So now, his cellmate is getting upset because he's got this new guy in his cell, and he don't know if he's got it or not.”

In addition to ongoing testing, Pojmann said the department uses quarantine and isolation methods to contain the spread including suspending inmate visits and isolating inmates who have tested positive. But just like on the outside, she said, it takes time to get the test results back.

“It is possible that someone who is positive might be living near someone who is negative while test results are being processed,” she said. “As soon as results are received, all positives are removed from the housing wing and relocated to the isolation unit.”

To be fair, Cutt said containing the spread of COVID-19 is harder at some facilities than others. He suspects that some of the prisons are not getting proper direction from the top, or they’re simply not following policy. But for a small number of facilities, he believes they have a handle on it.

“You have some institutions that have a dedicated quarantine house where you come in on transfer. You're not leaving that unit for any reason until 14 days is up,” Cutt said.

A push to release prisoners

Advocates say COVID outbreaks at prisons put not just inmates, but the surrounding population at risk. Luz María Henríquez, the executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said the prison and jail systems are a part of the public health crisis.

“Staff comes and goes in and out of the prisons and if there is an outbreak in the prison that will go back out into the community and can spread in the community, just like it's spreading everywhere else,” Henríquez said.

She and other prison reform activists have been pushing state and government officials to reduce prison and jail populations during the pandemic. They are calling on Gov. Mike Parson to commute more sentences and for police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and instead issue citations or tickets.

“We're also calling for probation and parole agents and parole boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the populations in prison as recommended by our health experts, which is what we've been discussing throughout,” she said. “And really having boards institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing in the next year or in the next two years."

Kenneth Clayton, who is now located at the Farmington Correctional Center, agrees. He said there are many people in prison that have parolable sentences.

“At the end of the day we are human beings,” Clayton said. “We wasn't sentenced to die in prison because of COVID.”

Follow Marissanne on Twitter:@marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.