Advocates from organizations such as the Missouri NAACP on Tuesday called for the state Department of Corrections to do more to combat the spread of COVID-19 among the state's prison population and the staff who work with inmates, and to be more transparent about those efforts and results.
DOC officials disputed many claims made, however, and said the department was not invited to the conversation until the last minute.
The Missouri NAACP, Missouri Corrections Officer Association, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and several state representatives were part of a virtual discussion Tuesday evening about DOC's handling of COVID-19.
Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel said "The information that we're getting is contrary to that that's been put out by the department."
Advocates cited complaints including about inmates' health care, communication access with their families, whether transfers are still occurring, and the extent to which masks are being worn or other top-level policies are being followed on the level of individual staff.
Since March, a total of 27 offenders and four staff members who had tested positive for coronavirus have died, though "all but two of the offenders had been hospitalized with other serious medical conditions," DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann reported this week.
Twenty-six Missouri inmates, all men, have died since September; and of the four corrections officers who died, three worked in prisons and one in an office in Jefferson City, the Associtaed Press reported.
Pojmann told the News Tribune that once problems with the department's online data dashboard of COVID-19 cases are fixed, "the dashboard will show the total number of tests performed; the reasons for testing and the test results; the number of active, recovered and cumulative staff and offender cases by facility; and the number of offender deaths."
Some of that information was back on the department's website Tuesday, at doc.mo.gov/media-center/newsroom/covid-19/data.
State health Director Dr. Randall Williams and DOC Director Anne Precythe or someone else from the department were invited to attend Tuesday's discussion, Chapel said, but Williams backed out after another public health-related meeting took precedence, and DOC did not know about the event.
While a DOC representative did not participate in the discussion, Pojmann watched at least part of it.
She shared an email with the News Tribune during the first half of the discussion disputing many of the claims made and said "DOC wasn't invited to participate until this afternoon, when an email was sent to generic constituent and media email addresses — not to Director Precythe."
While "scheduling conflicts preclude department leaders from attending the town hall live," Pojmann said the department would "be happy" to speak with the advocates after Thanksgiving if they would like to schedule a meeting.
Responding to specific claims made during the discussion or earlier in the day, Pojmann said:
"Face covers have been required in all areas of all facilities for months (throughout the fall). ... During the summer, they were required at many/most facilities (those with outbreaks), starting in July. Now they're required in all offices and other buildings as well as prisons and community supervision centers."
"Every person living or working in a Missouri state prison has been issued multiple fabric face covers, which can be cleaned in accordance with Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines."
She said staff and offenders entering isolation wings "are required to wear N95 masks and other PPE" and that there's no shortage of N95 masks.
"Offenders who test positive for COVID-19, along with their cellmates, are relocated to an isolation unit, where they remain until they test negative. COVID-19-positive offenders are not housed with COVID-19-negative offenders in the general population, and they never have been at any point during the pandemic."
"Facility staff who test positive are sent home on leave and must test negative before returning to work. Staff who have close contact with a positive are sent home for quarantine in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines."
"Early on, the department suspended all regular transfers among state correctional centers to help avoid the spread of the virus. Transfers have been made only in special circumstances, such as meeting an offender's specific medical or mental health needs or reducing crowding in our intake centers. We do not transfer anyone who tests positive for the virus."
Offenders are tested before a transfer and are quarantined afterward, she added.
Missouri Corrections Officer Association Director Tim Cutt, said, however, "There's no follow-through with this administration" on making sure directives are followed on the level of individual staff.
Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said while the risk of COVID-19 in prisons can be mitigated with testing, masks and quarantines, prions are by their nature prone to the spread of viruses, so "we have to get people out of prison."
Breihan suggested Gov. Mike Parson be pressured to grant more clemency applications and that Precythe and the state's parole board be pressured to do more as well, "for the sake of public health."
Pojmann said: "The Missouri Department of Corrections does not have the authority to release offenders from incarceration. Releases dates are determined by the courts, by state statute, by the Missouri Parole Board, or, in exceptional cases, by the governor."
State Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said she would like more information on where money is going that's being used for coronavirus mitigation efforts in the prison system.