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Prison activists call for transparency from Missouri Department of Corrections

An illustration of incarcerated silhouettes looking up to a window.
Angela Hsieh
Special to NPR
Prison reform groups criticize the department for not being forthcoming with information when an inmate dies.

Prison activists say they want transparency from the Missouri Department of Corrections after a warden was replaced last week without explanation.

Jefferson City Correctional Center Warden Doris Falkenrath was replaced just months after four corrections officers from the facility were fired, following an investigation of the death of inmate Othel Moore in December.

Lori Curry, executive director of Missouri Prison Reform, said she thinks Falkenrath was fired as a result of the Moore investigation. But she wishes the Department of Corrections would be more transparent about its reasoning as a way to take accountability.

“We just don’t know specifics about why wardens are let go or demoted, things like that,” Curry said. “There’s just so much secrecy, which is why I would really appreciate if the Department of Corrections would release a statement as to why Falkenrath was let go.”

The department’s lack of transparency is part of a bigger problem affecting Missouri prisons, Curry said.

“There is zero accountability in our prisons,” she said. “Things go on behind those walls, and unless we hear about it, nobody knows.”

The sun sets over a building.
Missouri Department of Corrections
via Facebook
The Jefferson City Correctional Center

She said this problem is especially concerning because of the current state of health care services in the prisons. Missouri Prison Reform released a report earlier this month advocating for improvements to what it called Missouri prisons’ deteriorating medical treatment.

“If we don’t have people treating the residents like they should be, if they need medical care and we can’t give them medical care, then we’ve got a bigger problem than just people not treating people like they should be treated,” Curry said. “Right now, our prisons are out of control, and they’re impacting everyone negatively.”

ML Smith, founder of the Missouri Justice Coalition, agrees that Falkenrath’s departure is just a piece of bigger issues in the state’s prisons. She said not only is the department not transparent in its staffing decisions, but it’s not forthcoming with information when an inmate dies.

“Even when families are trying to learn what’s going on, they can’t get autopsy reports, they can’t get the right stories, they’re blocked from understanding,” Smith said. “I mean, there are times when families aren’t even told when their loved one died inside.”

She said she wants the department to take accountability for its actions.

“The fact that we are losing people in this system of incarceration with no accountability, and there’s no explanation as far as what’s going on, I think our whole society should really take that as something we look further into,” Smith said.

Curry said the department’s decision to remove the warden was just one step toward accountability.

“I would like to see this continue,” Curry said. “I would like to see this kind of investigation happen when other things occur in the future. I hope it’s indicative of the future of the Department of Corrections.”

Department of Corrections Communications Director Karen Pojmann wrote in an email that personnel records are confidential, so she can’t comment about Falkenrath.

Pojmann said that inmates’ deaths are reviewed by the department and that the nature of the investigation depends on whether the death was expected, including deaths from terminal illness, or unexpected.

“The department may report any unexpected death to outside law enforcement,” Pojmann said. “The details of developments in an investigation may be kept confidential during the investigation to prevent interference with the outcome of the investigation — particularly when outside law enforcement is involved.”

She said the department doesn’t always immediately report an inmate’s cause of death to loved ones because it can’t determine the cause of death until a medical examiner or coroner conducts an autopsy and releases a report.

“Autopsies happen quickly, but autopsy reports take an average of 100 days to complete,” she said.

Curry said the current state of Missouri prisons is affecting everyone.

“Something needs to be done for everyone involved in our [prison] system in Missouri,” Curry 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.