Mass COVID-19 testing planned for Moberly, Boonville prisons

Erik Cliburn
Moberly Monitor-Index

The Missouri Department of Corrections has scheduled mass COVID-19 tests for offenders in the Moberly and Boonville Correctional Centers in early August. So far, there have been no positive results among offenders or staff at either prison, department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.

There have been 88 and 76 offenders tested at the Boonville and Moberly prisons, respectively.

“Offenders exhibiting symptoms are isolated pending test results,” Pojmann wrote. “All test results have been negative so far. Staff who test positive must isolate at home and can’t return until they test negative twice, and staff in close contact with positives are sent home for two weeks of quarantine.”

Last week, 14 COVID-19 cases were confirmed among offenders and staff at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia as part of the department’s mass testing program. Since then, the confirmed cases at the Vandalia prison have increased to 19, nine among staff and 10 among inmates, according to DOC data.

The Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre has recorded 42 offender cases and eight staff cases. There have been no recoveries so far.

The Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston has recorded the highest total of cases since the pandemic started, finding 19 staff cases and 47 inmate cases. Eight staff members have recovered, along with 29 offenders, the data showed. Several other correctional centers have recovered cases in the single digits.

Overall, 106 positive cases have been confirmed, among both staff and offenders, through approximately 10,600 tests.

“We’re focusing on reception and diagnostic centers right now, because those are the locations most likely to have asymptomatic positives,” Pojmann wrote. “Offenders have continued to enter those facilities from county jails, probation/parole revocations, other states, etc., throughout the public health crisis. The vast majority of the positives we’ve found through mass testing at other facilities have been asymptomatic.”

Visiting restrictions were loosened Thursday in the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, the South Central Correctional Center in Licking and the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe after the mass testing showed no positive cases from those facilities.

As part of the mass testing program, the department has urged staff members to be tested ’voluntarily’ for coronavirus. However, if staff members refuse to be tested they must quarantine at home for 14 day using paid sick time, vacation or unpaid leave, Pojmann said.

“If you don’t take [the test], they’ll send you home for 14 days on your own time and write you up for unscheduled leave,” said Tim Cutt, grievance officer for the Missouri Corrections Officers Association. “Everyone is doing the tests under threat of disciplinary action. There is nothing voluntary about it.”

There have been a small number of corrections officers in the department who have declined to get tested, some of them citing religious beliefs or medical issues as to their refusal, Cutt said.

Staff members who test positive, or who are in close proximity to other staff members who test positive, are sent home for 14 days on paid administrative leave, Pojmann said. However, staff who come into contact with a COVID-19 patient outside of the prison system must quarantine on their own leave, she said. Those who quarantine for two weeks have to test negative twice before they can go back to work.

While N-95 masks are required by staff members entering a quarantine housing wing, masks are not required elsewhere. There still quite a few staff members choosing not to wear masks, which stems partly from different internal policies across the various prisons, Cutt said.

“I do kind of wonder why there is not as much cooperation from the guards,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri, a human rights and inmate advocacy group. “Maybe the policy should be that they’re required [to wear masks], and they’re disciplined if they don’t. For whatever reason, it’s not gone that route. If prisoners get COVID, it’s going to be two ways, basically: staff bringing it in or new prisoners bringing it in.”

While the mass testing program is necessary, it has come too late to show the true impact COVID-19 has had on Missouri’s prison population, both Cutt and Mott Oxford said.

“I’m still concerned, but I hope the numbers stay as low as they seem to be right now,” Mott Oxford said.

All of Moberly Monitor Index’s coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to Moberly Monitor-Index at Help keep local businesses afloat