In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous impact on incarcerated populations (so far 687 people incarcerated in the Missouri Department of Corrections have tested positive for COVID-19, and there has been 1 death), the Prison Education Project (PEP) has published a joint statement along with American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, Bail Project – St. Louis, From Prison Cells to PhD, Saint Louis University Prison Education Program, STL Reentry Fund, LouHealth, and Missouri CURE calling for an immediate halt to transfers between prisons, the compassionate release of elderly and/or infirm individuals who are incarcerated in Missouri prisons as well as those who are months away from their release date, and the implementation of and adherence to CDC guidelines to help slow the spread of the virus. This includes providing masks for incarcerated individuals, requiring staff members to wear masks or other face coverings at all times, and providing adequate supplies of PPE to everyone in the prisons. Below is the original statement as well as a downloadable version for anyone interested in sharing and adding their voice and support to this petition.
Please consider advocating for incarcerated individuals who, in the midst of a global pandemic and national emergency, are trapped in an even more precarious position due to the lack of autonomy they have to protect themselves from the virus, their lack of access to adequate healthcare, and their inability to practice necessary social distancing or follow the recommended preventative guidelines for hygiene and sanitation. We urge you to reach out directly to the Missouri Governor, Senators, and State Representatives. You can track the number of reported COVID-19 cases within the Missouri Department of Corrections here.
Governor Michael L. Parson
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III
Warden Teri Lawson
Missouri Board of Probation and Parole
Missouri House Special Committee on Criminal Justice
Missouri Senate Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence
Missouri General Assembly Joint Committee on the Justice System
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt
U.S. Senator Josh Hawley
Dear local and state leaders:
As organizations that directly work with and advocate for incarcerated and justice-involved people, we are writing to encourage immediate action in response to the dangerous and life-threatening conditions at prisons across Missouri. As of August 16, there have been 687 cases of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population and there are 276 currently active cases. The already-strained medical services at the prisons, combined with the rampant transmission within the facilities are putting the health—and lives—of the incarcerated population at imminent risk.
Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC), a men’s prison in Pacific, Missouri, and Chillicothe Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Chillicothe, Missouri currently have the largest outbreaks in the state. In both prisons, there were no confirmed cases until individuals were transferred there from other prisons. As of our writing of this letter, at Chillicothe, the total number of reported cases among incarcerated people is 232, and at MECC, the number of confirmed cases among incarcerated people has quickly risen to 140. These prisons have the largest outbreaks in Missouri, and the number of cases is likely to increase exponentially, yet the necessary steps to protect the most vulnerable from this exponential outbreak have not been taken.
The media has recently highlighted the case of Patty Prewitt, a 71-year-old woman who has served 34 years of her 50-year sentence, who was transferred from Vandalia to Chillicothe in mid-July, when the case numbers were already rising. At the time she was transferred, Vandalia only had 1 COVID case. Because of her age and history of respiratory issues, Patty Prewitt is at high risk for serious illness or death. It is disturbing that transfers have been allowed to continue during this global pandemic—particularly from prisons with very few cases to prisons with clear outbreaks.
In addition to prison transfers, the current structure and regulations in place at prisons are frighteningly inadequate to the task of keeping people safe. According to our contacts at MECC, for example, men continue to be housed in close proximity—64 men to a wing—two individuals per cell, all sharing the same showers, sinks, and toilets with no ability to sanitize these before and after individual use; these men have not been provided with even the most basic sanitizing agents to protect themselves. Even more dangerous, 248 men in each housing unit share crowded indoor spaces, even after the CDC has informed the public that the virus is most likely to be spread quickly through the air, where the virus lingers. There are currently no requirements that staff, including Correctional Officers, wear masks or gloves, even though these staff come into contact with multiple housing units that are otherwise kept separate. Moreover, according to some reports, even individuals experiencing COVID symptoms who have proactively sought medical diagnosis and treatment, have been denied treatment and sent back to their housing units, where they have likely spread the virus further.
The incarcerated individuals at Chillicothe and MECC, like all people incarcerated in state prisons, are the responsibility of the state and have no power to isolate themselves or to take many of the precautions private citizens can. Many individuals at these prisons are elderly and suffer from health conditions—asthma, heart disease, diabetes, etc.—that have already been made worse in prison. For many of these individuals, COVID-19 may be lethal. The DOC does not have an infectious disease specialist which exacerbates the current conditions, as no one employed by the department is trained to handle the current situation. These individuals were not sentenced to death. Yet the state’s neglect and inaction in the face of this outbreak will make the state complicit in the long-term health damage and deaths of men and women that are almost certain occur.
We ask you to act with all urgency to prevent further illness and death among this population the state is mandated to protect by taking the following steps. Taking these steps will also protect the health of DOC staff and the communities to which they return.
- Immediately cease all transfers of incarcerated individuals from prisons with confirmed COVID-19 cases to prisons without documented cases.
- If transfers occur, every person transferred should be tested. While awaiting test results, and if they test positive, they should be held in medical quarantine (not solitary confinement) for fourteen days or until they test negative twice before coming into contact with the full population
- Extend and expedite any legal authority available to grant clemency, compassionate release, medical and geriatric parole, or medical furloughs for those most vulnerable to the deadly spread of COVID-19, including:
- Incarcerated citizens who are classified as elderly (55+).
- Those who are immunocompromised, seriously ill, or with pre-existing and/or chronic medical conditions.
- Implement and adhere to all guidelines recommended by the CDC and other health experts to slow the spread of COVID-19, including:
- Require staff members to wear masks or other face coverings at all times.
- Provide masks for incarcerated individuals and require that they are worn when they are outside their cells.
- Facilitate routine and repeated COVID-19 testing of all incarcerated people and staff members on an ongoing basis, isolating and treating those who present with even mild symptoms.
- Provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies to everyone in the prison and ensure that washable surfaces are disinfected.
- Use the opportunity of a reduced population following the release of vulnerable individuals to implement proper social distancing practices for incarcerated people.
In these demands, we join with previous requests from state coalitions of medical professionals, civic and religious leaders, academics and legal professionals who have already called on policymakers and the Missouri Supreme Court to be leaders in saving vulnerable lives in this time of pandemic.
Washington University in St. Louis Prison Education Project
American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri
Bail Project – St. Louis
From Prison Cells to PhD
Saint Louis University Prison Education Program
STL Reentry Fund