About 17 percent of offenders have tested positive
he number of inmates at Chillicothe Correctional Center who have tested positive for COVID-19 has surpassed 200.
That’s about 17 percent of the its female offender population.
Unlike most prisons in the state that house two offenders per cell, the Chillicothe Correctional Center has four women living together in a cell. Consequently, the virus is more widespread inside various housing units at the 11-year-old facility.
For comparison, the current COVID-19 positive rate for inmates and employees working in Missouri prisons is about 1.6 percent. According to the COVID Prison Project, one inmate has perished after contracting COVID-19 in a Missouri prison.
Inside the Chillicothe Correctional Center, no one is seriously ill, and a vast majority are asymptomatic, officials said.
A viral containment strategy was provided to the state’s prison system and implemented at each facility long before the Department of Corrections (DOC) had its first case, according to director of the DOC Karen Pojmann.
“From the beginning, we have been testing offenders who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 or may had contact with an infected person, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” said Pojmann.
Given that some people have no symptoms, the Department of Corrections is also conducting mass testing of all offenders and staff in all 21 facilities-regardless of symptoms.
When mass testing at Chillicothe Correctional Center took place in early June, there were no positive cases. Then, during the week of the Fourth of July holiday, four inmates and a staff member at the prison tested positive for COVID-19. The Missouri Department of Corrections realized the five cases were connected to the inmates’ position in food services.
Everyone in food services was placed in quarantine and tested for COVID-19, “as were all staff with whom they had contacts,” said Pojmann. “All positive offenders were relocated to a separate isolation wing, where they will remain until they test negative twice. All staff who tested positive are isolating and home and must test negative twice before returning to work. All staff who had contact with positive staff or offenders were sent home for two weeks of quarantine.”
Entire housing units in which an inmate has tested positive have also been forced to quarantine.
“All positive offenders remain isolated from the rest of the population,” said Pojmann.
Despite their best efforts, the number of cases rose dramatically.
The apparent lack of success in preventing the spread of the virus at Chillicothe Correctional Center may have to do with room accommodations, where four inmates live in close proximity in a cell.
Could a decade long increase in the prison population also be attributed to the spread? Between 2009 and 2019, the prison population in the Chillicothe Correctional Center more than tripled. In 2009, the $121 million prison opened with 489 female inmates. Last year, the prison population had risen to 1,541.
But overcrowding certainly isn’t an issue today as the prison population has dropped to 1,022.
Viral containment strategy
As of July 29, there are 617 cases of COVID-19 linked to the state’s prison system. The total number of cases, however, seem to speak to the moderate success of the department’s viral containment strategy.
“Implemented at every prison, the strategy involves limiting the number of people with whom each staff member and each resident has contact,” said Pojmann. “Residents interact only with fellow residents of their own housing units and avoid contact with residents of other housing units, moving together to dining halls and recreation. If an outbreak occurs, we are then able to quickly isolate it and prevent further spread throughout the facility.”
The department’s viral containment approach somewhat mirrors Iceland, which has been highly praised for its efforts to slow the spread of the virus using extensive testing, and contact tracing using security camera footage. The quick reactive approach also tests all newcomers, requires immediate mandatory quarantine for all suspected contacts, and upholds strict hygiene and sanitation guidelines.
Absent from their measures are strict face masks requirements. Inmates are “encouraged to wear the provided face coverings as much as possible” but inmates aren’t penalized for not covering their face.
On July 17, face coverings became a requirement at Chillicothe Correctional Center (C.C.C.) inside any building when social distancing cannot be maintained.
The mask mandate is exclusive to C.C.C. as COVID-19 cases surge at the prison.
Before the pandemic hit, the DOC took innumerable measures at each prison, including suspending offender visits, limiting group sizes and implementing temperature checks at entry points.
Pojmann said this strategy has been effective at containing the spread of the virus. When an outbreak occurred at Southeast Correctional Center (SECC) in April, two offenders who exhibited symptoms and their cell mates were moved to an isolation unit, where they were tested for COVID-19.
“When three of the four tests came back positive, the entire wing was tested and all residents were moved to the isolation unit, with positives recovering in one wing and negatives monitored in another wing,” said Pojmann.
“In May, we tested everyone at the prison – about 1,200 offenders and 400 staff – and found only a handful of previously undetected cases. In total, 3.9% of offenders in that facility tested positive. Meanwhile, in one facility in a neighboring state, 80% of the offender population was infected. Today there is only one active case at SECC.”
Statewide, 520 inmates and 98 staff members have tested positive for the infectious disease.
In Kansas, where the total number of inmates tested was not reported to The COVID Prison Project, 925 inmates and 133 staff members have tested positive. Four inmates and two staff members have died in Kansas.
One thing that can be stated with some certainty is that the current COVID-19 positive rate for inmates and staff in Missouri is lower than that of most other states, said Pojmann.
“According to data from the COVID Prison Project, Missouri ranks in the top 11 for testing rates (more offenders tested per capita) and the bottom 18 for infection rates (fewer cases per capita),” said Pojmann.
Despite the high positivity rate at the Chillicothe facility, officials said infection rates in Missouri’s entire prison system are “considerably lower than the overall community statewide COVID positivity rate in Missouri, which was reported at 8.6%” on Tuesday, July 28.