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Missouri Prison Officials Transfer Inmates Cautiously During Pandemic

New inmates continue to enter the Missouri state prison system from local jails, but officials say they're taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
New inmates continue to enter the Missouri state prison system from local jails, but officials say they're taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On any given day, rows of shackled inmates shuffle onto gray-and-white buses to be transferred between Missouri prisons.

State officials halted all regular weekly transfers in March to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, but the Missouri Department of Corrections has continued to accept inmates from local jails and relocate them statewide. Some inmates and criminal justice advocates contend the transfers led to an increasing number of cases this summer.

Corrections officials say they’ve implemented new policies, including testing, to safely move people between facilities.

Ronald Keebler, an inmate at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, remembers what happened when busloads of new prisoners arrived in mid-July.

“We were told these transfers were coming in and they were going into the quarantine wing for two weeks,” Keebler said. “That never happened. They just took them off the bus, handed them their stuff and gave them a cell.”

About a week later, Keebler woke up with a sore throat and a headache. He asked prison medical staff for a COVID-19 test but was sent back to his cell because he didn’t have a fever.

But in the coming days, others in his housing unit started feeling sick.

By the end of July, 54 inmates at the prison had tested positive for the coronavirus — including Keebler. “Three of the transfers were put into my wing and every single one of them tested positive,” he said. “I don’t think [the virus] was here before they arrived.”

Since March, 185 inmates and 47 staff members have tested positive for the virus at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, according to data from the Department of Corrections.

As the virus spread through the prison, Harvey Galler, co-founder of the STL Reentry Fund, started getting messages from the inmates there. “They were really alarmed,” said Galler, who was released from the Pacific prison in December 2019. “It was not so much, ‘Am I gonna get it?’ but ‘When am I gonna get it?’ They knew they couldn’t protect themselves.”

Because infected people without symptoms can unknowingly spread the coronavirus, it’s unclear exactly how the outbreak first began. That’s a major reason why moving inmates between prisons during a pandemic is risky, said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice nonprofit.

“You simply can't get past the fact that before a transfer takes place, the person who is being transferred has had a lot of contact with other people who might already be infected,” Bertram said. “Are the people who are transporting them from facility to facility being tested? There’s obviously no way to be 100% certain with things like this.”

Still, Missouri corrections officials say they’re now taking extra precautions when transferring inmates. All new inmates are tested for the coronavirus at reception and diagnostic centers and then quarantined, DOC spokesperson Karen Pojmann said. Before being transferred to prisons, inmates are retested and quarantined again.

People are entering the prison system from local jails every day and must be moved to prevent overcrowding at the state’s four intake facilities in Bonne Terre, St. Joseph, Vandalia and Fulton, Pojmann said.

The Department of Corrections has not announced when regular weekly transfers will resume.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award.