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Turned away from a prison visit, St. Louis lawmakers want answers about recent inmate deaths

State Rep. Kimberly Ann Collins took this selfie in July, just before her first visit to a state prison invoking a law giving legislators access at any time.
Kimberly Ann Collins
State Rep. Kimberly Ann Collins took this selfie in July, just before her first visit to a state prison invoking a law giving legislators access at any time.

As Missouri was preparing on Tuesday to execute Ernest Johnson, whose legal push for clemency had garnered national headlines, a pair of St. Louis lawmakers arrived at the prison focused on the deaths of prisoners whose names had not made the news.

State Reps. Kimberly-Ann Collins and Marlon Anderson, both Democrats, had grown concerned about a spate of recent prison deaths that sources had told them were likely overdoses.

They sought entry under a state law, virtually unchanged since it was included in the 1832 statute creating a state penitentiary, granting lawmakers and other listed officials access “at any time” to state prisons.

For Collins, it was the latest of numerous visits to prisons as a freshman state lawmaker. Anderson was making his first visit as an elected official.

But the legislators were barred from entering the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Center in Bonne Terre.

“We were not trying to gain access to see the execution, interfere with the execution or promote the execution,” Anderson told The Independent. “We believe in transparency. I just wanted to see the facilities and visit substantially among the inmates, see the conditions and what is going on.”

Department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann, in an email to The Independent, wrote that they were not admitted because the prison was in pre-execution lockdown prior to Ernest Lee Johnson’s death by lethal injection.

The department restricts access to the Bonne Terre prison starting at noon on the day of an execution, Pojmann wrote. The lockdown continues until 8 a.m. the following day.

Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m. Tuesday.

That, Collins said, means the department did not follow the law.

“It does not say a state representative or official cannot enter during a lockdown,” Collins said. “Once the lockdown was over, once the execution was over, we stayed for entrance and we were still denied access.”

Collins and Anderson said the person who denied them access did so on the direct orders of department Director Anne Precythe.

Pojmann wrote that the “last-minute visit” would have disrupted the protocols and “compromised the safety, security and privacy of ERDCC residents, staff, medical personnel and visitors — including witnesses for and family members of Ernest Johnson and his three victims, Mary Bratcher, Fred Jones and Mable Scruggs. It was not possible to simultaneously safely carry out the protocol and accommodate a spontaneous visit from anyone who did not already have an assigned role that day.”

Collins and Anderson were told they could return at 8 a.m. Wednesday, she wrote.

“As of 2 p.m., they had not returned,” she wrote in the email.

But the denial of access is ending Collins and Anderson’s concerns about several recent deaths – Anderson said the number he heard was four – that happened in a short period of time.

There were seven inmate deaths in prisons from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, according to records provided to The Independent by Lori Curry, director of Missouri Prison Reform.

“I have been requesting death logs every week for more than a year now,” Curry said. “That is the most deaths in the shortest period of time.”

One of the deaths was attributed to natural causes, which the department defines as due to disease or age. Six have a determination of cause pending and five have had autopsies ordered.

They are:

  • Travis Propst, 47, died Saturday at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. According to information on Casenet, he was in prison for a 2012 rape, serving a 15-year sentence out of St. Francois County. In an email, Pojmann at this point said his death was presumed to be from natural causes.
  • John Ferguson also died Saturday at Northeast Correctional Center. No other information was available Wednesday on Ferguson or whether he would be autopsied, Pojmann wrote.
  • Michael Berry, 67, died Friday at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. He had been in prison since 1992 and was serving a life sentence for three counts of first-degree robbery, two counts of first-degree pharmacy robbery and two counts of armed criminal action, a department release said.
  • Jay McClure, 50, died Friday at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. He had been in prison since 2017 and was serving a four-year sentence for second-degree assault, leaving the scene of an accident-property damage exceeding $1,000 and a seven-year sentence for second-degree assault from Pulaski County, a department release stated.
  • Joshua Miller, 42, died Thursday at the Bonne Terre prison. He had been in prison since 2017 and was serving a 30-year sentence for two counts of financial exploitation of the elderly from Pulaski County, according to a department news release.
  • Joseph Miller, 57, died Wednesday at Farmington Correctional Center. He had been in prison since 2016 and was serving a 10-year sentence for four counts of first-degree statutory sodomy from St. Louis County, a department release said. 

Curry, of Joplin, began monitoring Missouri prisons after developing a relationship with an inmatethrough correspondence. Her advocacy grew from tweeting about conditions to establishing a not-for-profit that has sources among inmates and staff.

Prisons are short-staffed and drugs are too available, she said.

“My concern is that they are not keeping incarcerated people and staff as safe as they should be,” Curry said. “There is a very high rate of overdoses right now in our Department of Corrections facilities and there are suicides on the rise.”

Collins said she started visiting prisons because the first letter she received as a lawmaker was from an inmate who alerted her to her legislative right of access.

She said she has visited the Chillicothe Correctional Center, the Bonne Terre prison three times previously, the Jefferson City Correctional center twice and the prisons in Pacific, Potosi and Moberly once each.

She is holding a town hall meeting on prison reform later this month in partnership with Curry.

In its response to the criticisms raised by Collins and Anderson, Pojmann wrote that they had an opportunity to return and chose not to do so.

Collins met with Precythe, department Budget Director Trevor Foley and Director of Adult Institutions Jeff Norman the day before the execution, Pojmann wrote. During that meeting, Collins “did not at any point mention drugs or drug overdoses. She also did not mention any plan to visit Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center.”

Her visits are intended to be surprises and wouldn’t worry prison officials if all was well behind the walls, Collins said.

“I don’t want you to know when I am coming,” Collins said. “They don’t need to know when I am coming.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.