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Missouri Prisons Fail To Release Prisoners Even As Coronavirus Risk Grows

Dormitory "D" in the men's section of the city's Medium Security Institution.
Ashley Lisenby

As the coronavirus spreads through the penal system, the U.S. Department of Justice has called for federal prisons to release some inmates to home confinement. Elderly or sick inmates who are nonviolent would be safer at home, Attorney General William Barr said in a memo. And releasing them could help alleviate the crowding that can make an outbreak worse.

But the Missouri Department of Corrections' inmates are not seeing similar paths to release. Despite advocacy from the ACLU of Missouri and other groups, the state prison system has made no moves to reduce its population. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sara Baker, policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, explained that there’s a national bipartisan movement to get inmates who are most at risk moved to home detention. Yet in Missouri, she said: “We absolutely are not seeing that happen at the state level. It appears to be sort of a game of wait and see.”  

Baker noted that prisons represent ripe conditions for the coronavirus to spread, with cramped quarters and poor access to soap and other cleaning supplies. People confined in prisons who are immunocompromised or elderly face clear risk.

“We’ve got over 29,000 people in Missouri prisons,” she said. “We need a comprehensive evaluation of who should be there, and who shouldn’t be there.” 


Baker also discussed the county jail system, which houses people convicted of low-level offenses or awaiting their day in court. Some county jails, including those run by St. Louis and St. Louis County, have released some detainees. St. Louis County, with a 14% reduction in its jail population, has had the largest decrease statewide, Baker said.

The conversation included remarks from Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. Fox wants the state Supreme Court to intervene with the county jails. 

“We can go about it person by person, with an analysis of each individual person who is sitting in jail,” she said, noting that such efforts are underway piecemeal in most jurisdictions. “The question is, do we have the time, and do we have the manpower, to accomplish that?”

The Supreme Court, Fox said, could use its supervisory powers over county court systems to order the release of more people. 

“I like the individual actions, where the attorneys for individual inmates are working to try to get individual people released,” Fox said. “But I’d like to see a broader action by our court system so that we can move forward more quickly.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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