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Some want masks required for Missouri prison staff

O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — Recent coronavirus outbreaks at Missouri correctional facilities are prompting some advocates for prison inmates to urge the state to require face coverings for staff.

The Missouri Department of Corrections reported Monday that 539 prisoners and 122 staff members across the state have tested positive for COVID-19. The majority of those cases have occurred in recent weeks at four facilities; 354 of the 539 cases are considered “active,” as are 76 of the 122 cases involving staff. Active means the sickened person has not recovered or died.

Prisons across the U.S. have been the sites of several outbreaks, and Missouri is among the states that do not require prison staff to wear face coverings. Hedy Harden, chairwoman of Missouri CURE, a St. Louis-based prisoner advocacy organization, said people who work at prisons are those most likely to introduce the virus to the facilities.

The lack of a mask requirement for staff “is a big complaint from the prisoners,” Harden said. “That’s where they’re going to catch it, from people who come and go every day.”

Corrections department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said Missouri is doing well compared to many other states in containing the virus. In fact, the rate of positive tests among prisoners, 1.5%, is far lower than the positive rate among tested Missourians overall, 9%, she said.

Pojmann said in an email that Missouri Vocational Enterprise, which provides job training for inmates, makes 3,000 fabric face coverings per day that are given to staff and inmates, as well as other state employees. But there is no requirement that staff or prisoners wear them.

That’s in line with the state’s policy in general under Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who has encouraged Missourians to take precautions — including wearing masks — but who has declined to make it a requirement, even though the number of coronavirus cases across the state has risen sharply since the state’s economy reopened in mid-June.

Multiple new daily records for confirmed cases were set over the past two weeks, and Missouri reported 1,047 new confirmed cases on Monday. The virus has claimed 1,255 lives in the state.

Nationally, more than 84,000 prisoners and more than 17,000 corrections staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to the COVID Prison Project, which tracks cases. The project’s database shows that 780 inmates and 47 staff members have died from the virus. Just one inmate has died in Missouri, in April.

Among all states, Missouri ranks in the middle for per capita coronavirus cases among inmates, according to the project, and the state ranks 11th in per capita testing.

Rates of known infections vary wildly across Missouri’s 22 correctional facilities. Some have no cases at all, and 15 have had fewer than a dozen cases among inmates.

But some have seen recent surges — active cases include 34 inmates in Bonne Terre, 41 in Boonville, 55 in Pacific and, most notably, 205 cases at the women’s prison in Chillicothe. Thirteen of the 19 staff cases at Chillicothe also are considered active.

The outbreak at Chillicothe that began in mid-July prompted the state to require corrections officers there to wear masks in housing units, recreation areas and other areas “where social distancing cannot easily be maintained,” Pojmann said.

The state has safeguards in place at all prisons, Pojmann said, including limiting contact and quickly isolating prisoners showing symptoms. N95 masks and gloves must be worn in isolation units and when interacting with anyone who has tested positive. Also, face coverings are required in certain areas such as visiting rooms and medical units.

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