'Ticking time bombs': Mo. doctors, advocates call for release of inmates

Advocates say protecting inmates from infection will also help protect correctional staff who go home to their families each night


By Luke Nozicka and Katie Moore
The Kansas City Star

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Two Missouri prison inmates were not given proper protective gear when they were instructed to clean an area where another incarcerated man was monitored for a suspected respiratory condition, the men wrote from the state prison in St. Joseph.

The ill prisoner, they would later learn, has since tested positive for the new coronavirus.

“We had direct contact with all of his bed linens as well as clothes he had been wearing,” William Swarnes, one of the inmates, said through the prison’s email system. “In addition to that we cleaned all the surfaces in the room.”

Swarnes cleaned the area March 19 when the sick prisoner was taken to a Kansas City area hospital. By then, nearly 30 people in the state had tested positive for COVID-19.

His mother Angela Swarnes said she was concerned about the way the situation has been handled.

“If my son gets sick, I don’t know how many people would be sick, but they’re not equipped, I know, to handle that kind of mess,” she said. “I know he’s an inmate, I get that, but that doesn’t make him any less important.”

Swarnes’ worry mirrored that of advocates who have expressed concern for those behind bars. Social distancing is nearly impossible for prisoners, they said. Many live in cramped quarters with unsanitary conditions and lack access to health services.

More than three dozen people and organizations — including medical professionals, the Missouri State Public Defender, the ACLU of Missouri, the state NAACP, professors and the sheriff of St. Louis — recently called on the Missouri Supreme Court to order judges to immediately release certain detainees in county jails. That included those serving time for misdemeanor offenses, municipal or probation violations as well as inmates considered to be high-risk for serious illness or death.

“Action now can avoid death, suffering and the creation of hundreds more contagious individuals desperately looking for beds in an overburdened healthcare system,” the letter stated. “When COVID-19 enters Missouri jails, the results will be devastating.”

The Missouri Supreme Court on Monday sent all state judges a letter pointing to the rules governing the release of detainees and inmates. In doing so, a spokeswoman for the court said, the justices left decisions about the release to the discretion of local judges.

It’s what the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys called for Thursday in response to the public defender’s request. The association said judges and sheriffs, with input from prosecutors and defense attorneys, were best positioned to consider release and review cases based on a detainee’s alleged offense and criminal history, among other things, such as a victim’s safety.

The prosecuting association called the proposal to release certain inmates an unwarranted and sweeping “one-size-fits-all” measure. In its response, it urged the high court to “trust local courts and sheriffs to make particularized decisions considering each individual case.”

As of Monday, one Missouri Department of Corrections inmate and one officer had tested positive for the virus. A juvenile at a Division of Youth Services facility in St. Louis was also infected.

It sounded the alarm for some inmates who said few precautions were being taken inside.

“We are in crowded settings constantly,” an inmate in Jefferson City wrote to The Star. “God help us if one person in here gets bit.”

‘Ticking time bombs’

In their letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, the public defenders and other groups said litigation from attorneys to win their clients’ release or to require more health screenings would not address the immense problem of COVID-19.

That was particularly true for detainees who were not currently represented by lawyers, the letter said. The state’s highest court, it said, could provide decisive relief needed to protect prisoners — an often “overlooked, marginalized and unrepresented population.”

The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently granted similar relief, the groups noted. The justices early last week ordered the temporary release of certain detainees in county jails. The order could affect up to 1,000 people behind bars, the ACLU there said.

The Missouri letter also pointed to infection in other jails and prisons across the country.

In Chicago, positive tests for COVID-19 grew within a week at the Cook County Jail from two to 101 among detainees and 12 among correctional staff, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has seen 167 inmates and 137 staff members test positive, The New York Times reported Monday.

At the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 28 inmates have fallen ill, including a prisoner in Louisiana serving time for a drug conviction who died over the weekend.

Twenty-four staff members tested positive, including one in Leavenworth, Kansas, who reportedly had no inmate contact.

While the number of Missourians infected appeared low compared to other places in the country, the groups’ letter said, it was “undoubtedly” a function of how few people have been tested. When the letter was written, Missouri reported about 350 cases. It now has more than 1,000, including 13 deaths.

“With the virus rapidly spreading across Missouri and the rest of the country, and people cycling in and out of city and county jails daily, it is a matter of when — not if — the virus will infiltrate Missouri’s jails,” the groups wrote, calling jails and prisons “ticking time bombs” during pandemics.

Among those who signed was Mike Wolff, former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, and Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, who said a client told her he knows the virus will spread widely if prisoners or correctional officers tests positive.

“He knows they’re all going to get it,” Bushnell said. “He’s like, ‘Once it’s in here, we’re all done. We all have it.’”

In an accompanying letter, Fred Rottnek, St. Louis University medical professor, said doctors were worried about the thousands of people behind bars in institutions they believe can’t comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. He noted correctional facilities are often poorly ventilated and share heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which “accelerates the spread of disease through droplets.”

Rottnek’s letter, which included signatures from 16 other healthcare professionals, recommended prison and jails evaluate the release of any inmates and detainees considered medically vulnerable, 55 or older or unable to pay a cash bond. It also suggested releasing enough inmates to accommodate the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.

Doctors, he said, urged swift action that could “avert the catastrophic loss of life.”

First infected prisoner

The first inmate to test positive for COVID-19, a man in his mid-50s from the Kansas City area, entered custody in August.

He was housed at Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron until he was transferred March 4 to Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph.

There, he was treated for a different medical condition in a negative-airflow isolation chamber, said Karen Pojmann, the Missouri Department of Corrections’ spokeswoman. No other inmates had contact with him there, she said.

Staff who had contact with the infected inmate wore personal protective equipment, Pojmann said.

Swarnes, who lives in Bates County, said her son cleaned up the isolation area when the prisoner was transported March 19 to a Kansas City area hospital, where he later tested positive for COVID-19.

“He was concerned,” Swarnes told The Star. “He said, ‘Mom, we literally stripped the bed sheets, we had to clean everything that he had been in there with since the 4th.’”

Her son and another man were tasked with cleaning the chamber twice.

Pojmann said the two inmates were given gloves during the first cleaning.

“Additional protective gear was worn during the second cleaning,” she said.

William Swarnes said during the second cleaning, they were given protective gowns, masks, gloves and booties. After they were done, the gear was put into sealed boxes to be disposed of.

He wasn’t sure why those supplies weren’t distributed the first time and said the department showed a lack of “care or concern for our basic safety as well as our human and civil rights.”

At least one inmate told his lawyers he did not learn a Missouri prisoner had tested positive for the virus but instead heard it on the news. Inmates can’t see the empty streets or people rushing to buy toilet paper, so things inside feel the same.

As COVID-19 spreads across Missouri, prisoners and their attorneys report varying levels of response at prisons across the state. Some inmates say life is continuing as it did before the outbreak.

Others have told their lawyers that little has changed for vulnerable populations inside Missouri prisons, including in elderly care units. One of the Midwest Innocence Project’s clients recently said prisoners working in such a unit in Jefferson City worried they could get elder inmates sick.

“That’s terrifying for them,” Bushnell said. “They don’t know, ‘Could they make someone sick . . . Are they going to survive?’”

Bev Livingston, founder of Mothers of Incarcerated Sons and Daughters, said her son at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center reported sanitation measures had been implemented and a quarantine area had been set up as a precaution.

Another inmate, who asked not to be named because he feared retaliation for speaking out, said similar measures had been taken at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City.

But he doubted that it would be enough if COVID-19 comes into the facility.

“You’re putting lipstick on a pig here. This place is filthy, we’re on top of each other,” he said during a call from the prison.

About 100 men share four phones so he now puts a sock over the phone when he uses it.

He said he doubts whether Corizon, the company contracted by the state for prisoner health services, has the ability to deal with a health crisis.

“If it comes into the facility, the virus gets into the facility, then it’s just going to be a dumpster fire because that’s the way medical operates,” he said. “It’s known, you go to medical to be told why you don’t have a problem.”

Pojmann said offenders have 24/7 access to medical care provided by Corizon.

“All health care providers in our facilities have been trained in COVID-19 response and are followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and protocols for prevention, testing and treatment,” she said.

Corizon said it has been preparing since January and has benefited from institutional memory dating back to the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks.

“Corizon is following the CDC precautions with appropriate guidance, supplies, and processes that restrict transmission of disease, like all health care providers,” the company said in a statement. “Site teams are in constant contact with the local health authorities and our site medical leadership to monitor all developments as they occur.”

Meanwhile, plans were underway for inmates to start producing hand sanitizer at Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.

For some incarcerated people, one of the biggest concerns is if their attorneys are healthy.

“We represent their hope,” Bushnell said. “If something happens to us, everything shifts for them.”

Just like people on the outside, inmates have been stocking up on commissary, buying coffee and dried soups. They have prepared for the things they would need in case of lockdowns.

There were no plans for lockdowns in Missouri, Pojmann said Thursday.

Later Thursday, corrections officials learned a Division of Probation and Parole employee who works “in the field” in northwest Missouri tested positive for COVID-19 — the first correctional worker to become infected. He was receiving treatment at a hospital and staff who had been in contact with him were ordered to self-quarantine, Director Anne Precythe said Friday in a bulletin to staff.

Officials say they have increased their cleaning efforts and begun screening anyone, including staff, who enter facilities.

Advocates say protecting inmates from infection will also help protect correctional staff who go home to their families each night.

Visitation has been suspended at all correctional centers. Securus, which provides phone services to Missouri prisons, has begun offering two free-10 minutes calls a week to each inmate, officials said.

Jail releases in Kansas City and St. Louis

After 133 cases were sent to Jackson County judges to be reviewed, 80 inmates were released from the county’s jail, Sheriff Darryl Forté said Friday. More than 80% of the jail’s detainees were awaiting trial.

News of the releases came about a week after the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office announced it was minimizing bond conditions for defendants who don’t pose a public safety or flight risk.

Across the state, St. Louis city and county officials planned to release more than 140 inmates from local jails, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The city’s circuit attorney and district defender identified 56 people with low-level offenses or serious health problems for the court to consider for immediate pre-trial release “in an attempt to mitigate the very real health crisis present in our jails.”

In a later story, the Post-Dispatch reported that among those release was a man held for first-degree child molestation.

Before the first inmate tested positive, the local ACLU urged Gov. Mike Parson to commute the sentence of any inmate considered particularly vulnerable to the virus whose sentence would end within the next two years.

Asked about the issue during a news conference, Parson said there were no plans to release any of the state’s nearly 26,000 inmates.

A question to consider was if inmates had a place to go upon release, he said.

“People are incarcerated for a reason and that’s because what the law is,” Parson said.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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