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Health, Science, Environment

Coronavirus Cases Surge At Missouri Women’s Prison; Advocates Call For Action

Missouri Department of Corrections officials say they have taken aggressive steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. But criminal justice reform advocates say an outbreak in Chillicothe is endangering inmates and the surrounding community.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Department of Corrections officials say they have taken aggressive steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. But criminal justice reform advocates say an outbreak in Chillicothe is endangering inmates and the surrounding community.

Dozens of inmates at a women’s prison in northern Missouri have fallen ill after contracting the coronavirus.

At least 189 inmates and nine employees at Chillicothe Correctional Center are now infected — in what has become the worst coronavirus outbreak at any prison statewide. The facility has isolated the infected inmates, but some criminal justice reform advocates say the outbreak is endangering prisoners and the surrounding community.

Prisons and jails across the U.S. have become hot spots of transmission in recent months. The 10 largest clusters of coronavirus infections nationwide are currently found in correctional centers. 

The swift spread of the virus behind bars is no coincidence, said Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in Missouri.

“It's a densely populated, poorly ventilated, unsanitary environment that just lends itself to the rapid spread of the disease,” Breihan said, adding that inmates are often living in very close quarters.

But Missouri Department of Corrections officials say they’ve taken a proactive approach to containing the spread of the virus, implementing an aggressive “viral containment strategy” early in the pandemic that limits contact among inmates.

“Residents interact only with fellow residents of their own housing units,” a department spokesperson said via email. “If an outbreak occurs, we are then able to quickly isolate it and prevent further spread throughout the facility.”

The department also began testing all inmates for the coronavirus in late May, in an effort to identify asymptomatic cases that might be contributing to the spread of the virus within prisons. 

More than 17,800 inmates have been tested so far, according to the most recent data available

Of the 22 facilities statewide, 18 have reported COVID-19 cases among inmates, staff or both. Across all Missouri prisons, 397 inmates have tested positive, the “vast majority” of whom have been asymptomatic, the department spokesperson said. 

Though the outbreak at Chillicothe Correctional Center remains the most serious, clusters of cases have also emerged at several men’s prisons. In Farmington, 67 inmates and 7 staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, while Bonne Terre and Charleston have reported nearly 70 cases each. 

Straining community resources

Mass testing can help officials pinpoint infected patients who aren’t showing symptoms, said Steven Lawrence, a Washington University infectious disease specialist. But it isn’t a fail-safe method.

“It's not going to catch everybody because the test isn't 100% sensitive,” Lawrence said. “Also, it only shows you that snapshot in time, so you could have a test that's negative [and] the next day you could become infected.” 

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe announces a plan to test all state prison inmates for the coronavirus on May 26, 2020.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson

The women’s prison in Chillicothe completed mass testing of inmates and staff the week of June 8. At that time, there were no positive cases, and inmate visits with family members were allowed to resume.

But less than a month later, four inmates and a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus — cases that have been traced to food service workers at the prison, the department spokesperson said. 

During a pandemic, the “constant churn” of people entering prisons each day puts inmates at risk, Breihan said.

“Prisoners aren't the only people at prisons; there are guards, social workers, attorneys, medical personnel, other staff who go in and out of that facility every day,” Breihan said. “That high rate of turnover and population mixing of staff and prisoners increases the likelihood of exposure in prisons.”

Breihan, along with St. Louis University emeritus law professor John Ammann, released a statement Monday, asking Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and the Department of Corrections to reduce the prison population at Chillicothe.

They argue that nearby hospitals are not prepared to handle an influx of sick patients from the prison. 

Hedrick Medical Center, the only hospital in Livingston County, has four beds in its intensive care unit — while 40 miles west, Cameron Regional Medical Center has five ICU beds. Seven other nearby hospitals do not have ICU units, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Prison staff could carry the virus home with them and spread it to their families, to their church, to their neighborhoods,” Breihan said. “It really isn't just about the folks who are incarcerated, it's about the entire community.”

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