Mo. inmates fear COVID-19 being brought in by staff with limited mask policy
Masks aren't required of anyone — correctional officers or inmates — in many communal areas at the Chillicothe Correctional Center
By Katie Moore
The Kansas City Star
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — At the women’s prison in Chillicothe, Missouri, it’s the same in the canteen as in the library, the recreation area and along the inmates’ housing units.
Most guards don’t wear masks. They aren’t required of anyone — guards or inmates — in many communal areas.
Rhonda Smith, 42, an inmate at Chillicothe Correctional Center, said the department’s response to the pandemic has felt “uncaring.”
Since inmates can’t go anywhere, Smith said, it is likely staff who are bringing the virus into facilities.
“It could have been avoided, but hey, this is prison right? That’s how they make us feel,” she said.
Sixty-seven staff members at 12 facilities have tested positive and more than 200 inmates have contracted the virus.
Inmate Christa Mueller, 33, said she has only seen one corrections officer at Chillicothe wear a mask. The majority of the guards have chosen not to, she said, leaving her and others at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“Why is it people who work at McDonald’s or small or big time businesses dealing with the public has to wear them but these staff members are above everything else? Our lives matter too!” Mueller wrote through the prison’s email system.
Prisons, with their crowded conditions, have become notorious hotspots for outbreaks. Missouri’s prison system has seen cases spread from two facilities in May to at least a dozen now.
Guards in Missouri are not required to wear masks in many parts of the facilities where they interact with people who are incarcerated. Only staff entering a quarantine area or interacting with someone who is symptomatic or who has tested positive are required to wear N95 masks and other personal protective equipment, said Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann.
Fabric face coverings have been given to all staff and residents, who are encouraged to wear them, she said, adding that the department has taken several steps to address the pandemic including distributing hand sanitizer, contact tracing and daily temperature checks of all staff.
Within the prison’s walls and beyond, the question of whether to wear a mask has become a hot button issue, but public health officials say they are effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a mandatory mask order earlier this month. Though dozens of counties have rejected the requirement, the Kansas Department of Correction requires everyone entering its prisons to wear a mask.
Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who started the COVID Prison Project, housed at the University of North Carolina, said that was a key step to stopping the virus.
“Because asymptomatic spread is possible, social distancing in prison facilities is often impossible, and testing access is based largely on whether people have symptoms, it is really important for corrections officers to wear masks at all times to eliminate the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
In May, 44 cases at two Missouri Department of Corrections facilities had been confirmed. About 600 inmates had been tested. Experts interviewed by The Star at the time, including Brinkley-Rubinstein, said more testing was needed to get an accurate count.
Since then, the department has tested about 14,000 people and identified 217 coronavirus cases across a dozen facilities.
Fifty cases have been found at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, about one hour south of St. Louis.
An inmate at the facility, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, said he was troubled by the department’s protocols.
“If you was to see how many staff members walk around not wearing a mask, coughing, sneezing, you would have concerns and worries yourself,” he wrote.
Twenty-four cases have been confirmed at the women’s facility in Chillicothe and inmates report that several others are in quarantine.
One woman said it was mind boggling that some officers do not wear masks.
“We are at the mercy of this prison and the warden who is in charge of dos and don’ts,” she wrote, adding that she was scared because a woman in her wing recently tested positive.
About 10,000 inmates in Missouri await testing, which is expected to be completed during the first week of August.
©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)