While almost half the state is under stay-at-home orders and social distancing is the new normal, all the staff in Missouri prisons -- guards, case workers and teachers -- have been deemed essential and must report to work.
So far, the Department of Corrections has only had one confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that emerged late last year. And in an email to the Monitor-Index, spokeswoman Karen Pojmann wrote that prison workers — who enter and leave every day — can’t be spared.
As of last week, all staff members at prisons across the state, including case managers and teachers, were among those staff members deemed essential personnel.
“All staff working inside a prison have been deemed essential for maintaining normal operations,” Pojmann wrote in an email. “Insufficient staffing can both create safety issues and necessitate activity restrictions, which can lead to offender unrest, staff stress and additional safety issues.”
The union representing corrections officers, however, sees it differently.
There is an obvious need for some employees to continue working through the pandemic, it doesn’t make sense to require staff, such as teachers and certain case manager, to report during the pandemic, said Missouri Corrections Officers Association spokesman Tim Cutt.
The first case of COVID-19 in the prison system is an inmate of the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph.
The inmate was isolated March 4 in a negative airflow chamber at the prison and transferred to a Kansas City hospital on March 19, the department stated in a news release.
No other inmates has been in contact with the inmate since he was put in isolation and all staff members who made contact with him were wearing personal protective equipment, the release stated.
“To our knowledge, no one has had contact with him without the use of personal protective equipment in the last 22 days,” the release stated.
During a press briefing Tuesday afternoon via Facebook, Gov. Mike Parson said there are no plans to release non-violent offenders who may be vulnerable to the virus. The prisons in Missouri are prepared to handle the pandemic without having to release offenders, he said.
“People are incarcerated for a reason, and that’s because what the law is,” Parson said. “Right now, there’s a lot that goes into that. Just saying you’re going to release somebody.”
He brought into question where offenders would go and what they would do if released early.
There are no confirmed cases in DOC facilities as of Thursday afternoon, Pojmann said. The department also is testing for COVID-19, based on CDC guidelines, through Corizon Health, the department’s healthcare provider, she said.
Over the past two weeks, DOC has implemented several policies to address the potential spread of the virus throughout Missouri prisons, including making all prison staff essential.
Department Director Anne Precythe briefly addressed the topic in a message to department employees Monday.
“In our profession — as in other law enforcement, public safety and public health jobs — we don't pick and choose when we come to work,” Precythe said. “...Every position inside an institution is critical to everyone's safety, and remaining fully staffed helps us to alleviate staff stress and offender unrest.“
Some staff who work outside of the prison are working from home during the pandemic, Pojmann said.
Though inmates through Missouri prison’s have access to tablets, it is unclear whether teachers and case managers have the capability of doing their jobs remotely.
The department also has suspended all public visits to its facilities, including family visits will inmates, and internal transfers in an attempt to limit the virus’ spread.