Although there have been 45 COVID-related deaths of prisoners, along with six staff, in the Missouri Department of Corrections since the pandemic began, DOC officials said they have done everything within their power to keep the virus from being as problematic as possible.
On Thursday night, the Missouri NAACP held a virtual town hall to talk about concerns about how DOC has handled the pandemic.
In August 2020, the NAACP, in a coalition with several organizations, wrote to Gov. Mike Parson requesting that a mandatory mask policy be implemented at state prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by infected staff to co-workers and inmates.
"Our concern was that asymptomatic staff members were spreading the virus to both their co-workers and inmates," the NAACP's Nimrod Chapel Jr. said. "We believe these deaths were absolutely unnecessary and could have been prevented by implementing and enforcing a mandatory mask requirement."
Thursday night's panelists included Amy Breihan, a co- director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is a civil rights law firm. She talked about a proceeding with a client at Bonne Terre Prison where guards weren't wearing masks, but she and her client and her client's family had to wear them. Briehan also said it was her understanding that prisoners who didn't wear masks faced punishment for that.
DOC Deputy Director Matt Stern said Breihan had reached out to them about her concerns, and they investigated and found them to be true.
"She was right and we addressed and rectified it so we need to hear about these issues when they come up or they won't be addressed," he said. "We reiterated to all wardens that it is the expectation for staff to wear masks."
However, Stern and DOC Director Anne Precythe said staff are not being terminated when not wearing masks.
"It's not different from what you see in many public places now," Precythe said. "DOC is not the most popular place to work, and we have to keep the staff we have and need to find more. We also educate the prisoners about the need to wear masks, but they are not facing discipline if they don't, especially those who have a history of no disciplinary problems."
When asked if it could be called a mandate if it's not enforced, Precythe said: "There is an expectation and we ask the staff to wear them and the importance of that. I need my staff at work, and they have been doing a good job."
Precythe said they have begun vaccinations at prisons, and as of Thursday, just more than 3,600 had been given to prisoners in a two-week time period. She said they are starting with the same guidelines used by the state for the rest of the population with those 65 and older and with pre-existing conditions receiving the first doses.
Stern added all staff have been offered vaccines, and close to 3,000 have been given to them with two large clinics planned in the near future. He also added it's the personal choice for prisoners and staff to get vaccinated, but DOC was trying to encourage them to take the vaccine.
"We tell them that getting vaccinated will allow us to get back to offering things like visitations and our other educational programs to help them," Precythe added.
Tim Cutt, of the Missouri Corrections Officer Association, which represents about 4,000 prison staff, said he hadn't had a COVID-related complaint in more than a month.
"When this started a year ago, we had staff who would stay at institutions at night so they wouldn't bring it back to their family," he said. "Steps were followed to letter when this started and then got lax at some institutions. We saw more problems when transfers from prisons occurred a few months ago, but now we appear to have gotten a handle on things, the staff feels. There have been 88,000 tests done at prisons and that may have helped. I can't put a finger on what slowed this down, but we want it to continue."
Stern said reception and diagnostic centers such as in Fulton are where they see the most problems. As of Thursday, Stern said they had 12 active COVID-19 cases in Fulton, the most of any DOC facility. Some of that he blamed on the fact some counties are not testing prisoners for COVID-19 at their jails so it's not until they are transferred to DOC that they are found to have the virus.
Precythe noted, as of Thursday, there were only 26 offenders who were actively positive with COVID-19 in the entire DOC, along with nine staff.
"You can only hold people so long in one facility before you have to move to them to another facility," Stern said. "It's challenging in a confined setting like what we have. This wasn't taken lightly. We stopped outside visits into prisons, we tested all prisoners and staff, and any staff found to be positive had to go through a process before coming back to work."
Stern said they had hoped to have video visitation up and working by now, but there have been a lot of technical issues, although a pilot program is going on at the Tipton Correctional Center.
"We want visitations to start as soon as possible, but we have to wait until vaccinations increase," Stern added.