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story.lead_photo.caption Moberly Correctional Center [Photo courtesy Gannett]

When she learned her fiance had tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of June, Selina Al-Hameed had no idea what would happen next.

She was worried. Her fiance has severe asthma, which could put him at increased risk for severe illness. And because he's incarcerated at Farmington Correctional Center, there was no easy way for Al-Hameed to get answers.

Al-Hameed called the prison and was transferred to its medical department. She had a medical release form, which lets her access her fiance's medical information, but she was told an administrator would have to call her back. Al-Hameed said the exchange ended at about 8 a.m.

Eight hours later, Al-Hameed got a call back. She said she wanted to know what the plan was now that her fiance had tested positive.

Al-Hameed said the administrator said the prison was doing vital checks twice a day, and if any prisoner's symptoms worsen, staff would take the necessary steps to treat them, either in-house or through an outside provider.

"And that was it," Al-Hameed said.

After waiting eight hours, Al-Hameed said those weren't exactly the answers she had hoped for.

Al-Hameed's fiance has been incarcerated in Missouri for seven and a half years. For her, the exchange was one example of a long-standing frustration that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. She and other family members of those in prison say they struggle to get information about their loved ones, especially when it comes to their health.

With more than 600 cases of COVID-19 linked to the Missouri Department of Corrections and cases identified in 16 adult institutions, the pandemic has intensified the families' anxiety and mistrust. They worry what will happen to their loved ones if they contract the coronavirus while behind bars.

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Notifying families

The Department of Corrections must notify a prisoner's emergency contact about a life-threatening illness or injury, spokesperson Karen Pojmann said.

Whether a contact is notified will generally depend on the situation but, "if there's an urgent, life or death sort of situation, then (the facility) would contact a family member immediately," she said.

Pojmann also said family members will not be notified by the department about noncritical illnesses. A prisoner who tested positive for COVID-19 but who has mild or no symptoms wouldn't trigger the notification policy or be considered time sensitive.

"The vast, vast majority of people who are testing positive through this mass testing approach are asymptomatic," Pojmann said.

Since May 26, Missouri has been testing every prisoner and prison staff member for active cases of COVID-19.

A positive test result wouldn't automatically be an emergency medical situation, she said. However, if someone has tested positive, they must be isolated and staff must also prioritize determining who the person has come in contact with, she said.

"So it might, under those circumstances, take longer than a few hours to get information," Pojmann said.

She added prisoners would still be able to contact family members themselves if they test positive for COVID-19. She emphasized there is medical care for prisoners 24 hours a day at each facility.

"I understand it can be very frustrating and scary in this situation," Pojmann said. "It is a pandemic, and it is a complicated and upsetting situation to be in for everyone, for sure. But our top priority is attending to the medical needs of the offenders in our care, and that might take precedence over informing family members."

Prisoners turn to family members

When Al-Hameed's fiance tested positive for COVID-19, he was moved to a cramped housing unit that was being used to isolate prisoners at Farmington Correctional Center. As of July 29, 64 prisoners and seven staff members at the Farmington prison had tested positive for COVID-19.

As of June 30, her fiance was stable and wasn't experiencing severe symptoms. However, Al-Hameed said he wasn't able to get any answers about what, if any, medical care he would receive. So he turned to her.

"They don't give them those kinds of answers," she said. "You can't just leave these men not knowing. So it takes for them to have to contact their families and for their families to call in just to get any type of answer. That's ridiculous."

Al-Hameed said it's common for prisoners to hit this type of wall where they can't get questions answered or concerns addressed.

Nick Cooke, who is incarcerated in the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, said in an email message that the department is "somewhat" open about what's happening in his prison.

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"Eventually they tell us what is going on," Cooke wrote. "I do think that they should (be) a lot more timely (and) open with what is happening and not learn things through the grapevine or other means."

As of July 29, two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 at the prison in Cameron. Mass testing had not yet been completed at the prison.

When prisoners do turn to family members or advocates for outside help, that doesn't always lead to answers.

"I could probably get through to the president of the United States faster than I could get a straight answer out of anybody at the (Department of Corrections) or the prison where my son is," said Susan Strauss, whose son has been incarcerated almost eight years.

Currently, her son is incarcerated at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, but he has been at other prisons as well. Strauss said the difficulty of getting information out of the department is a system-wide problem.

On the outside, the persistent lack of information means prisoners' family members are living in constant fear and anxiety, Strauss said.

"What happens when mine gets the virus?" she asked. "Will they treat him? Will they take him to the hospital? Will they do anything if he needs a respirator or whatever? Will it be there for him?"

The prison in Bowling Green has not yet completed mass testing, but one staff member had tested positive for the virus as of July 29.

'No faith in them'

Diane Lowe, whose son has been incarcerated for almost 14 years, said she doesn't trust the state to be open about what's happening with the coronavirus in prisons because they have a history of failing to be transparent.

"They are not forthcoming on anything at all; it doesn't matter what it is," Lowe said. "They just don't tell people. They just don't."

Strauss said when her son was first incarcerated, she asked him to share her contact information with other incarcerated people he trusted. She told her son it was necessary: "If something happens to you, someone can contact me. 'Cause I won't find out from the (Department of Corrections)."

Pojmann, the department spokesperson, said the department put up a website when the pandemic began that described their efforts to prevent the virus from entering prisons and plans to contain it. She also said the department is under no obligation to publish the number of positive COVID-19 cases identified in prisons.

"That was a choice that we made to be transparent from the beginning," she said.

Pojmann also said communication has become a much bigger priority since Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe took over in February 2017.

"In the past, people may have had more difficulty getting information, but that is not what we're doing now," Pojmann said. "We're trying to be as transparent as possible, and we have more avenues of communication available than ever before."

But the mistrust remains.

"I don't have no faith in them at all," said Jesika Blount, whose husband is incarcerated at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. As of July 29, 72 prisoners and 17 staff members at the prison have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Advocating for loved ones

Blount said she has hit roadblocks when trying to advocate for her husband, who has a vitamin B12 deficiency and needs monthly shots.

"I've had to get on to them about making sure he gets his shots, testing his blood," Blount said. "It's like pulling teeth to get any information or whatever. Or to get them to comply with me to make sure his health is all right."

Family members and friends are encouraged to sign up for the department's messaging system and bring their questions and concerns about loved ones in prison to the department's Constituent Services Office, Pojmann said. Constituent services employees can provide general information about policies and procedures or work with individual prisons to get more specific information, she said.

"If they call the prison directly, they might not be able to reach someone who has the information that they're looking for," Pojmann said. "But if they call constituent services, then we'll make sure that we get the information for them."

Lowe's son has spent time in four Missouri prisons, and Lowe said she's had mixed success getting through to them.

When her son was incarcerated at Western Missouri Correctional Center, Lowe said, she had to call daily and "fight with" prison staff to try to force them to address his health problems. He was struggling with heat exhaustion because his housing unit at the prison did not have air conditioning and he had also developed a rash.

"Usually, I will talk to his case manager, and I usually don't get anywhere talking to them," Lowe said, describing the process. "Then I tried constituent services, same issue. You don't really get anywhere talking to them. So the only way I got anything accomplished when he was in Cameron was calling a representative."

Lowe said she believes former state Rep. Brandon Ellington helped get her son transferred to Moberly Correctional Center, where he is now. Lowe's son wasn't given the medication he needed until he was transferred, she said.

The prison in Moberly has not yet completed mass testing, but no cases of COVID-19 have been reported there as of Wednesday.

It's not uncommon for people to have to do this type of work to help their loved ones behind bars, Strauss, Lowe and Al-Hameed said.

Al-Hameed said it's terrible that whenever anything needs to be done, family members have to go to incredible lengths to make it happen.

"Or you have to take extreme measures just to get your loved one heard in prison. It should not be that way," she said.

This story was produced by the Missouri Information Corps, a project of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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