Why COVID will be a lasting concern inside Missouri prisons

While Missouri prisons have COVID-19 containment plans, incarcerated people and advocates say more can be done to ensure safety

When LeVar Aikens tested positive for COVID-19, he was worried he wouldn't be able to marry his wife, Adrienne. But the two were married last September, separated by glass (photo courtesy of Adrienne Aikens).
This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Missouri Department of Corrections has implemented mitigation efforts and begun administering thousands of vaccines.

But people incarcerated in Missouri and advocates for incarcerated people say more can be done to ensure safety, like the enforcement of masking and the early release of those eligible for parole. Officials say it isn’t so easy.

LeVar Aikens is incarcerated at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. When COVID-19 first hit the facility last spring, he said incarcerated people who tested positive weren’t being properly quarantined.

“I’m in (cell) 207. The guys in 206 and 208 tested positive for COVID,” Aikens said. “They put our wing on quarantine, so we just weren’t allowed to leave the wing. But the positive guys stayed in the wing with us for a week or two weeks.”

Last summer, Aikens tested positive for COVID-19. He had preexisting health conditions, like sleep apnea and chronic back pain. Though now fully vaccinated, he said he’s experiencing long-term side effects like brain fog, fatigue and trouble breathing.

Aikens said he feels powerless. “There’s nothing I can do to protect myself.”

After he was diagnosed, Aikens married his wife, Adrienne, last September. They were separated by glass for the ceremony.

“It was disappointing, because him and I were hoping that it wouldn’t have been behind the glass,” Adrienne Aikens said. “But, I mean either way it was special.”

Staffers not following safety guidelines

Kerri Fowler worked for the Missouri Department of Corrections for 6 months in 2020 (Courtesy of Kerri Fowler).

Kerri Fowler worked as an officer in the Moberly Correctional Center for six months last year, from January until June. She said the facility’s handling of COVID-19 was part of why she resigned.

Growing up in a family of law enforcement, Fowler said her “expectations were that correctional officers acted in a professional manner.”

But that wasn’t her experience at Moberly.

“I didn’t see where there was a consistent, safe plan,” she said. “They make it look good on paper, I can tell you that, but what’s on paper is not what’s happening.”

When she was exposed to a suspected COVID-19 case, Fowler said she was told to keep working and placed on yard duty. Throughout that shift, Fowler said she was uncomfortable and decided to stay home for two days until the COVID-19 test results came in.

“Well, they didn’t like that at all,” she said, adding that she was written up.

Lori Curry’s boyfriend, Trey Pearson, is incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. In late 2019, Pearson informed Curry about some issues he’d had accessing healthcare at his facility.

In late 2019, Lori Curry started anonymously tweeting about her boyfriend’s difficulty accessing needed healthcare at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. She hid her identity out of concern that her boyfriend would be retaliated against.

Her efforts grew into Missouri Prison Reform, an online platform where she shares stories from incarcerated people, their families and former staff about the conditions inside Missouri prisons. She went public shortly after the pandemic began, when her work started gaining more attention.

The Missouri Department of Corrections has not been following all the safety measures outlined in its COVID-19 containment plans, Curry said.

For example, she said that early in the pandemic some staff members were told to stay and work even if they were sick.

“They would put them in front of a fan, like a cooling fan, to put their temperatures down,” Curry said.

LeVar Aikens has used Missouri Prison Reform to raise some of his concerns. He blames staff at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Facility for exposing him to the virus.

“It’s not like we ever left the prison and came back,” he said. “It was always staff that were leaving.”

Last October, Aikens filed a lawsuit in the St. Francois County Court against the staff at his facility. He outlines 25 allegations, including that staff refused to wear masks.

Aikens said sometimes, when incarcerated people raise concerns about the lack of mask wearing, they’re punished.

“There’s people who have said to the guard like, ‘Hey, put on a mask,’ and they’ve been written up and put in the hole,” Aikens said, referring to solitary confinement. “No one’s trying to be disrespectful, we’re just trying to be safe. We don’t have any other way to protect ourselves.”

The mask issue was discussed during a Facebook Live town hall hosted by the Jefferson City NAACP on March 4.

At the meeting, Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe said, “When folks are not wearing their masks, we work with them. We address it, we have conversations, we’re educating, and we continue to talk with staff throughout this whole period about wearing masks.”

But, Precythe said, if a staff member refuses to wear a mask, they won’t be terminated.

“We’re in a tough spot right now. We’re having some staffing shortages,” she said. “Corrections is not the most popular place to work right now.”

DOC efforts to fight COVID spread

Anne Precythe, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

The Missouri Department of Corrections reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 23, 2020, with an incarcerated person at Western Missouri Correctional Center.

Since then, there have been nearly 8,000 COVID-19 cases and 54 deaths among incarcerated people and staff, according to the department’s website.

As of May 24, the department of corrections site showed 91 active cases among incarcerated people.

The department’s COVID-19 safety measures are outlined on its website. On March 12 last year, all regular family and friend visits were suspended. By April, viral containment plans had been developed for each facility. Last December, the department began implementing three “COVID-Killing Technologies” in its facilities. These include air purifying devices, disinfectant sprayers and wastewater monitoring.

Vaccines are now being distributed department-wide, and more than 12,200 of the roughly 23,000 people incarcerated in Missouri state prisons have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Staff are not required to get vaccinations and that data is not readily available.

According to an April report from The New York Times, the rate of COVID-19 infections in Missouri prisons is lower than in most states.

Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said in an email that after installing air purifying devices and disinfectant sprayers in December, “the number of active COVID-19 cases immediately dropped by more than 85%.”

Released and reincarcerated

Throughout the pandemic, the Missouri Parole Board has released people on parole, but it has also reincarcerated thousands for parole violations.

In 2020, more than half of the admissions to Missouri prisons were for parole violations. Of those admissions, just under 58% were for technical violations, such as failing to report to one’s parole officer, failing to complete a substance abuse class or traveling across state lines without permission.

Missouri Parole Board Chairman Don Phillips said it wasn’t up to the board whether or not to release incarcerated people eligible for parole early due to COVID-19. However, in Missouri, the Parole Board has almost complete discretion when it comes to releasing incarcerated people on parole.

“COVID threw a wrench into everything,” Phillips said. “The board would have honored the COVID release had the governor declared some kind of a mandate on it, and he did not do that.”

When asked about the early release of incarcerated people eligible for parole, Stephanie Whitaker, communications specialist for Parson’s office responded in an email: “During the pandemic, approximately 250 Missourians have been released from prison according to schedule every week. …. Missouri has taken innovative steps to reduce the risk of COVID infection in prisons while also following the laws, policies and procedures already in place to mitigate any safety risks people released from prison might pose to the public or to themselves.”

Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, says the only effective way to make prisons safer during a pandemic is by releasing people. The center has demanded that the Missouri Department of Corrections stop revoking parole.

“I think the nature of a prison is that it really can’t be made safe from an infectious disease like this,” Breihan said. “It’s a poorly ventilated, unsanitary place where people are housed very closely to one another.”

Across the country, some state and local leaders have released eligible incarcerated people.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, early last spring, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections released nearly 1,600 incarcerated people because of the pandemic. The majority of those released were in jail for probation and parole violations.

Last October, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that led to the release of thousands of incarcerated people who had less than a year left on their sentences.

In February, a lawsuit settlement over prison conditions in North Carolina prompted the early release of 3,500 incarcerated people.

In Bonne Terre, LeVar Aikens said he is parole eligible in June, but he likely won’t get a hearing until December or January. He was 16 when he was charged with first-degree murder in his mother’s death, a charge he’s denied.

Records show Aikens defended himself and was certified to stand trial as an adult. He was sentenced to life without parole in 1996; in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled life without parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment.

“There is no humanity in here,” Aikens said. “And so it’s extremely difficult to try to hold on to who you are and not lose that goodness that’s inside of you.”

Adrienne Aikens said once her husband is released, the two plan to open a wellness center that will promote both physical and mental healing. While incarcerated, LeVar Aikens has earned a certificate as a personal trainer.

“We’re basically, at this point, just praying everything goes smoothly at the parole hearing,” Adrienne Aikens said. “So that he can be released and we can be united as a family.”

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