The first Buchanan County resident to die from COVID-19 was an inmate who had been housed at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. Now ten months after his death, more than 7,500 staff and offenders within the Missouri Department of Corrections have contracted the virus and 47 others have died.

BY THE NUMBERS: COVID-19 in Missouri Prisons

Nearly a year into the pandemic, many Missouri Department of Corrections offenders and some employees across the state blame the department for not following its own viral containment protocols, which they allege is leading to COVID-19 outbreaks within facilities.

“When you’re stuck in a place where your health, your life depends on the people that are there, that are supposed to serve and protect and keep the facilities running at the standards of the department of corrections, they failed miserably,” said Aaron Humphreys, a former inmate at Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

In an April 2020 memo to corrections staff, soon after the first offender died of COVID-19, Jeff Norman, the director of the division of adult institutions, said the Missouri Department of Corrections would “not be locking down facilities.”

“Most changes center around keeping the offenders from each housing unit separated from those living in other housing units so we can better contain any spread of the virus should a case occur in the offender population,” Norman said in the memo obtained by News-Press NOW. “We will slow down offender movement, restrict group sizes, reduce some programs and limit the length of time and size of groups permitted during recreation outside the housing units. All of these efforts are designed to reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19 should it enter a facility.”

Offenders and staff contend these protocols were followed for a short time, but then restrictions became more and more relaxed.

“After a couple of months of no positive cases and stuff, everything just loosened back up,” said Kyle Mueller, a former inmate at Maryville Treatment Center, who recently was transferred to Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. “In fact, the DOC started breaking their own viral containment plans, doing mass moves inside the institutions.”

Tim Cutt, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said while this pandemic is unprecedented, Missouri Department of Corrections officials had the necessary protocols but stopped following them.

“They’ve failed in a lot of areas,” Cutt said. “But saying that, this (the pandemic) is totally unexpected by every state agency across the country. It’s all new territory for everybody. There are things that they could have done, but they did not.”

Missouri Department of Corrections officials rejected interview requests with the wardens at Maryville Treatment Center and Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. While Karen Pojmann, the communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, provided comments through email, she did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Transferring the virus

According to Missouri Department of Corrections officials, movement inside and between facilities was extremely limited beginning in March 2020.

“As far as transfers inside the department of corrections, until diagnostic got completely full, they weren’t doing transfers,” Humphreys, the former inmate, said. “Everything was on hold.”

Transfers are common and necessary. There is a continual flow of people coming into the system from county jails. Usually these offenders go to a diagnostic center, like Western Reception in St. Joseph, which determines where they will begin their sentences. Despite the concern surrounding the virus, limited transfers took place because they had to.

However, as cases remained low, other transfers became more common. In the middle of January, more than 3,000 offenders were transferred to facilities across the state, according to Cutt.

News-Press NOW requested transfer numbers during the pandemic through the Sunshine Law, but the officials with the Missouri Department of Corrections said they were closed records because they “relate to institutional security.”

In August, Maryville Treatment Center moved offenders from one housing unit into another, said Mueller, who was then an inmate at that facility. This contradicted the memo sent to correctional staff to keep offenders separated.

According to Mueller, who said he kept meticulous notes during the pandemic, about 50 offenders were transferred on Aug. 4. That same day, the facility received about 25 new arrivals. Those new arrivals told Mueller they were not tested, screened or quarantined before or after their transfer.

In an email to News-Press NOW, Pojmann, the department of corrections communications director, said, “All offenders are tested before transfer. We do not transfer offenders who have tested positive for COVID. Assertions and implications that the department is currently transferring COVID-positive offenders are completely false.”

While the department of corrections’ protocol is to test all transfers, some have questioned whether the methods being used are enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Shawn Knight said he was tested a week before his transfer from Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center to the Maryville facility in October. The day before he was to be moved, four offenders on his wing tested positive, yet Knight said he still was transferred. Two days later he tested positive in Maryville.

Cutt, with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, said he doesn’t argue with the necessary movement of prisoners.

“I understand you have to do transfers,” Cutt said. “We have three reception diagnostic centers. You can’t just keep piling people in there from county (jails), you’ve got to get these guys out.”

But Cutt said he believes the department of corrections should stick with the original transfer protocols and not rely solely on testing.

“Quarantine them before they leave, make sure they are negative,” Cutt said. “Once you transfer them — they’re on that bus, out and about — quarantine them when they get there. Then you assign them to a housing unit. That’s the way it started March last year. It’s no longer that way.”

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections officials, “there is no link between COVID rates and offender transfers.”

Questionable quarantine procedures

Once within a facility, offenders allege staff were mishandling quarantine procedures, which only spread the virus more within prison walls.

According to several inmates interviewed for this story, medical staff don’t quarantine or test them if they self-declare.

Department of corrections officials said inmates are being tested.

“‘Self-declaring’ is not a scientifically reliable diagnostic tool,” Pojmann said via email. “Offenders who show or report symptoms of COVID-19 are tested for the virus. Those who test positive are relocated to an isolation area. Because some people who have COVID are asymptomatic or are reluctant to report their symptoms, the department does not rely solely on offender reporting to identify the virus.”

The process for waiting on test results also has been problematic. When the medical team tests an offender, he is placed in quarantine. Sometimes multiple offenders are placed in a single room or wing while they wait for their results. If an offender tests positive, he is placed on an isolation floor with others who also have tested positive. If an offender tests negative, he is released back to general population.

Mueller said while he was waiting on his test result at Maryville Treatment Center, he was put in an isolation room with another offender. Four days later, Mueller tested positive, while the other offender tested negative and was sent back to his wing. But three days later, the other offender tested positive and joined Mueller on the quarantine floor. Mueller said that offender told him he believes he was infected in the isolation room.

These incidents aren’t only happening at Maryville Treatment Center.

“I went to a quarantine wing after I’ve already tested negative, and I’m around people that are waiting on their results,” Humphreys said about his time at Western Reception in St. Joseph.

Waiting to mask

Offenders also told News-Press NOW about correctional officers not wearing masks.

“Staff members should be required, not just encouraged, but required, to wear masks and gloves at all times, any time they are within the facility, which they have not even been doing,” said David Bramlett, an offender at Maryville Treatment Center.

It was not until September that some Missouri Department of Corrections facilities mandated masks, according to a memo sent to inmates at Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

“Why did they wait seven months to start wearing masks when it’s been proven that wearing masks really helps reduce the risk of spread? Not necessarily you getting it, but if somebody got it, it keeps you more protected,” Humphreys said.

In an email, Pojmann said, “The fall surge in COVID cases throughout the state of Missouri also caused a surge in cases inside prisons and stricter guidelines. Anyone not wearing a face cover or wearing a face cover improperly is reminded to wear one. We have not had reports of staff or offenders repeatedly refusing to wear a mask.”

‘Three feet apart’

To make the situation worse, prisons aren’t conducive to social distancing. Inmates are either in a cell with another prisoner or live in an open bay with a number of offenders.

“These people just don’t care about whether we’re social distancing or not,” Bramlett said. “I live in a wing that’s got bunks in them and they’re all three feet apart. If I lean back on my bunk, I can touch the guy to the left and the guy to the right. That’s how cramped we are in here.”

To combat the difficulty of social distancing, Missouri Department of Corrections staff has relied on its viral containment strategy, which Pojmann said “has been effective.”

“This difference between Missouri’s prisons and those of other states reflects successful protocol implementation,” Pojmann said via email. “Currently, there are COVID cases among 0.3% of the offender population statewide. Meanwhile, the current COVID positivity rate for the population of Missouri as a whole is 10.2%.”

‘We’re done testing’

The infection statistics are based on the Missouri Department of Corrections’ own testing numbers. However, numerous offenders in multiple facilities said they believe positive cases are significantly higher than what is published.

“The floor that I came off of is completely infected,” Mueller stated in an October interview. “Almost every person on that floor has COVID-19 right now, I guarantee it. Not only are they refusing to test them, those guys, because of the poor conditions in isolation, they don’t want to go to medical.”

But the lack of testing does not appear to be an issue only at Maryville Treatment Center.

“Medical had told us, ‘We’re done testing, we’re told not to test no more,’” Humphreys said of Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center. “The only people that were tested are people going home. If one of those people test positive, whoever was around them, like in their cell, that’s it. It’s not like they go through the whole wing where that person lived.

“They got to the point where they weren’t even testing people unless you were going home, because they didn’t truly want to know how many cases they had,” Humphreys said.

Missouri Department of Corrections officials dispute these claims, saying they have the “most aggressive and comprehensive testing strategies of any department of corrections in the United States and has received national recognition for it.”

“Every person working or living in a MODOC facility has been tested — multiple times, in most cases,” Pojmann said via email. “To date, we have conducted 82,965 COVID tests on our offenders and staff. Currently about 23,000 offenders live in our facilities, and we employ about 9,000 staff.”

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, Maryville Treatment Center has a population of 195 offenders and has conducted 1,181 COVID-19 tests. The correctional facility in St. Joseph houses 1,383 offenders and has conducted 7,078 tests.

Offenders allege the information the corrections department has conveyed to the public is not accurate.

“This situation has caused a lot of damage inside the Missouri Department of Corrections to the offenders and the staff,” Mueller said. “I don’t feel that the correct information is getting out to the general public about what exactly is going on in here. I’ve listed it as cruel and unusual punishment through gross negligence in the decision making.”

Staff whistleblowers and the inmates they oversee said the state wouldn’t be in this situation if they were still following the viral containment plan.

“They’ll have a good run at it and then it just starts falling off the edges,” Cutt said. “People stop doing it. So the viral containment plan, it’s as if they didn’t even have one. You might as well just scrap the whole idea.”

‘Send them home’

In an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, some states have released offenders from jails and prisons to reduce population. The release of inmates has not taken place in Missouri.

“It’s not like people are saying shut down the prisons, but there are people that are eligible to go home,” Humphreys said. “Send them home. If they’re going to catch COVID, let them catch it out here where they’re going to be around people that care about them and will try and get them help.”

Releasing offenders isn’t up to Missouri Department of Corrections officials but determined by “state statute, the courts, the Parole Board and, in some circumstances, the governor,” Pojmann said via email.

During his time at Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, Humphreys tested positive for COVID-19, which pushed back his release date.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone in them 17 years of doing time that I’ve been in and out of the system than when I had COVID,” Humphreys said. “There was absolutely nothing, nobody.”

Humphreys recovered, finished his sentence and is now in Kansas City with his family, but he doesn’t want anyone to experience what he had to go through.

“If it gets bad enough, some of them people aren’t going to make it home,” Humphreys said. “Who is anybody in the department of corrections to judge if somebody should be able to live or die as far as being in prison?”