Outbreak in one state facility prompts action
ass COVID-19 testing of Missouri’s prison population will begin this week.
It appears an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston has spurred the corrections department to develop a plan to test the entire prison population in Missouri.
With more than 24,600 inmates and 11,000 correctional professionals spread across 21 adult correctional centers, that is no simple task.
Testing began Tuesday at the Southeast Correctional Center and South Central Correctional Center in Licking. Female inmates at the Chillicothe Correctional Center and male inmates at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City will undergo testing on May 31.
“The type of testing being conducted at state prisons, known as sentinel testing, is a process of testing most or all members of a large group of people living or working together in close contact, even if there are no known cases of COVID-19 in that location,” states an update from the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Correctional leaders are developing a plan to effectively test inmates at the remaining institutions in the upcoming weeks.
“Before, during and after this process takes place, we will continue to follow the viral containment plans implemented at all facilities. If some members of the corrections community test positive for COVID-19, we will continue our strategy of isolating offenders and sending staff home,” states the update from the Missouri Department of Corrections.
“If everyone at a site tests negative, it means what we’re doing is working. It does not mean the public health crisis is over. It also does not mean we can immediately return to “normal.” However, the test results can help us to keep your loved ones safe and can give us the information we need to make informed decisions about the future and a gradual return to more regular operations. This testing is a necessary first step to helping you reconnect safely with your loved ones,” states the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Safety concerns prompt dramatic changes
Recently, 43 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at one of the housing units inside the Southeast Correctional Center.
“As of Friday, at least 14 had recovered (defined as two negative tests), and four of the 15 positive staff members also had recovered,” said Karen Pojmann, director of communication for the Missouri Department of Corrections. “Because we acted quickly and quarantined a housing wing as soon as the first offender showed symptoms, we were able to prevent the virus from spreading to other housing units.”
For most of the past two months, however, inmates have endured much stricter living arrangements. Not surprisingly, inmates have expressed concern that the arrangements will continue for the long term.
“Infectious disease can spread quickly in residential facilities such as nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, veterans’ homes, college dorms, jails and prisons,” said Pojmann. “Our goal is to keep our staff and offenders safe and healthy. We have an aggressive viral containment plan in place at all prisons to keep COVID-19 out of the facilities and keep it from spreading if it gets in.”
Pojmann, however, points out that it is difficult to “practice conventional social distancing” in the correctional system.
“Our plan is to reduce the number of people with whom each offender and each staff member has contact. Unfortunately, we have had to alter or suspend large-group activities such as religious gatherings, classroom instruction and club meetings. Offenders move around the prison with the residents of their own housing units. They take part in indoor and outdoor recreation together and go to the dining hall together,” said Pojmann.
While free educational, mental health and job training programs-preparing offenders to reenter society–have largely been suspended, some programs continue.
“In many cases, teachers are visiting the housing wings to provide academic instruction, and in some facilities, religious and educational programming is conducted through video or other remote means. For example, all offenders have JPay computer tablets, and in most facilities, they can use them to take college courses through Ashland University,” said Pojmann.
Critics say offenders must rely on family members to fund a number of the extended education programs and phone calls home.
Though a majority of inmates are between 18 and 49 years old, twenty-one percent of the total incarcerated population in Missouri is over the age of 50. Given that older adults and people of any age with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk of severe illness of COVID-19, some people say the correctional system has a moral obligation to house older and sicker inmates separately.
To a large extent, the DOC has managed to limit the number of people in contact with inmates on any given day and provide health care.
“Offenders continue to have access to medical and mental health treatment,” said Pojmann. “All facility staff, including contracted health care providers, continue to show up and provide services every day.”
Furthermore, prison officials “have suspended visiting and other programs that bring volunteers or reentry partners from the community to reduce the risk of infection. Offender councils are working with administrators on a plan for safely resuming visiting some time after June 18,” said Pojmann.
New regulations have also impacted correctional professionals working inside prisons.
As a rule, “all staff are screened, with temperature checks, before entering the facility,” said Pojmann. “Any staff member who tests positive is required to isolate at home until they have tested negative twice. All staff with whom they have contact also are required to isolate at home. We have isolation units and isolation cells identified at every prison.”
On the Outside
Outside of penal institutions, Missourians can receive free COVID-19 community testing. Missourians do not have to exhibit any symptoms to qualify for testing. Community testing results informs health officials of the rate of infection.
“Low prevalence guides the community toward returning to somewhat normal operations. Higher prevalence lets leaders know quick and proactive steps must be taken to keep the virus from spreading. As our department comes together to support the governor’s plan for safely returning the state to normal operations, all of us must do our part,” states an update from the Missouri Department of Corrections.