Mo. officials clam up about COVID-19 deaths in prisons

"Transparency is essential for government, especially during a public health crisis," an ACLU of Missouri advocate said

By Kurt Erickson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Unlike other states, Missouri prison officials are not releasing any detailed information about inmates or staff who die of the coronavirus.

With seven deaths among inmates and employees since the pandemic began, the Missouri Department of Corrections is declining to provide basic identification of the deceased, such as which prison, an age or age range, their sentence and the crime they were convicted of.

"In the interest of protecting privacy and confidential medical information, we aren't publicly releasing identifying information (including locations) offenders or staff members who have died after testing positive for COVID-19. All information is reported to local and state health departments," Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.

Pojmann did not immediately respond to a request for additional information about the department's decision, including a citation of statute that would preclude the release of basic locational information about deceased inmates and staff.

That position stands in contrast to other states, where officials aren't releasing names, but are reporting the age or age range of the deceased, the prison where they were incarcerated, the inmates' sentence and the crime they committed.

It also stands in contrast to other state departments under Gov. Mike Parson's administration.

In June, for example, two state mental health workers in the St. Louis area died after contracting COVID-19.

Missouri Department of Mental Health Director Mark Stringer said one worker was employed at the St. Louis Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, 5300 Arsenal Street, and one employee worked at the South County Habilitation Center, 2312 Lemay Ferry Road.

Advocates panned the decision by Corrections.

"Transparency is essential for government, especially during a public health crisis. Missouri should be public about which facilities in the state are experiencing COVID outbreaks to ensure there is accountability for getting resources to those facilities, proper procedures in place to protect staff and inmates at those facilities, and decrease anxiety about the unknown," said Sara Baker, policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

Baker said Missouri should have enacted a plan to decrease its prison population by releasing inmates who are vulnerable to the virus, such as older prisoners and those with underlying health conditions.

"We can do better to fight this virus and improve outcomes if we are honest about our challenges, and we can stop the spread faster by ensuring only people who need to be in prison are in prison," she said.

Thus far, Corrections officials have reported five inmate deaths and two staff deaths.

The Post-Dispatch was able to confirm one inmate death in September as Willie Earl Miller, 70, who was serving a 999-year sentence for sexual assault at the prison in Farmington.

The head of the Missouri Correctional Officers Association confirmed the coronavirus-related death Tuesday of one of the employees at the Tipton Correctional Center.

On its website, the Department of Corrections said there are 949 active cases among inmates and 364 among employees.

Four of the state's 20 prisons are reporting more than 100 cases, including 111 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.

In all, the state is reporting it has conducted 48,471 tests since the pandemic began in March.


(c)2020 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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