© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Organization calls for improvements to Missouri’s prison health care conditions

A person in prison looks in a mirror that is refracted and kind of broken. There are needles and other drugs around them as a sweatdrop runs down their temple.
Jasjyot Singh Hans
Special to NPR
Missouri Prison Reform identified several key concerns in Missouri prisons, including provider shortages, extended wait times and lost and falsified medical records.

Health care services in Missouri state prison facilities are deteriorating, according to activists and groups including Missouri Prison Reform.

The nonprofit has been heard concerns from prisoners, their families and current medical staff about health care conditions for years, but Executive Director Lori Curry said conditions are getting worse. She said the organization has received complaints from both staff and residents as recently as last week.

“There is clearly a problem with keeping people healthy in our prisons, and I don’t see that getting resolved anytime soon,” Curry said.

Missouri Prison Reform identified several key concerns, including provider shortages, extended wait times and lost and falsified medical records. As of May 30, there have been 66 deaths this year in Missouri Department of Corrections facilities, according to records the organization obtained from the department. Curry suggests many of these deaths could have been avoided if residents were treated sooner, or at all.

“A lack of medical care is really contributing to an increased number of deaths in the prisons,” she said.

Curry said some residents have been denied immediate medical care when attempting to self-declare emergencies. In one case, it took 45 minutes for a resident to be taken to a provider.

“Within a few minutes, sometimes, somebody can pass when it could’ve been prevented,” she said. “When people aren’t getting medical care, it can really mean life or death for them.”

Erin Brown, a former nurse for Centurion Health, the current medical provider of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said she left in November because of poor working conditions.

In the last weekend she worked, she said she had to care for more than 20 patients alone in the infirmary, which is where patients are usually admitted when they’re critically ill, recovering from surgery or have injuries too severe to be cared for in their cells.

“It was just too much,” said Brown, who worked in Missouri prisons for eight years. “I’m not losing my life to this place anymore. I’m just not going to do it.”

Brown said part of the fault is Centurion's for having inexperienced management and not caring enough about staff and prisoners. She said a nurse who was only legally allowed to work 16-hour shifts had to work at a facility for almost 24 hours because no one was there to relieve her.

“She can’t leave because she will be abandoning, and nobody will do the job,” Brown said. “It was insane to me. But [Centurion doesn’t] know that because they don’t know, and they don’t try to know, and they don’t really care. They just care that, ‘Oh, there’s technically a nurse in the facility.’”

Centurion did not immediately respond to a request Friday for comment.

Brown said the prisons’ current health care conditions are a form of human abuse.

“I get they have certain crimes or certain allegations, but at the same time, they are still somebody’s loved one,” she said. “There’s not hardly any light shed on people incarcerated. I don’t think the general public truly knows what’s going on.”

Brown and Curry want accountability from the Department of Corrections for the decline in medical conditions.

In an email statement, department Communications Director Karen Pojmann said that the main issue is a staffing shortage that leads to problems like extended wait times and mass sick calls, and that staffing shortages are a national crisis. She said the facilities are accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and prison residents have free on-site medical care available 24/7.

Pojmann said that at Jefferson City Correctional Center, the facility Curry said is experiencing the most issues, a new health services administrator and three nurses started last week, and three additional nurses are scheduled to start this week.

“The department employs medical contract monitors who monitor and evaluate operations at our facilities to ensure residents receive medical care that is equivalent to the community standard; that all mandates of the contract are fulfilled; and that providers are compliant with policies, procedures, regulations and laws,” Pojmann said.

Madison Holcomb is a Summer '24 newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio and a rising senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.