We are fortunate the COVID-19 pandemic has, to date, not been as severe in Boone County and most of Missouri as it is in other parts of the country and world. However, there are risks that imperil not only specific individuals but also the rest of us. Such COVID-19 high-vulnerability groups include those who are currently incarcerated in Missouri state prisons and the Boone County Jail.
Crowded conditions in prisons and jails make it almost impossible to prevent widespread infection affecting both incarcerated persons and staff. Such an outbreak would also accelerate the spread across nearby communities. Rural Missouri, where most prisons are located, is all the more vulnerable due to smaller-town hospital closures in recent years and limited health care resources.
We thus call on Gov. Mike Parson, Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe, Boone County judges, Sheriff Dwayne Carey and other local officials to release as many individuals as can be done safely and promptly.
Mass COVID-19 outbreaks and fatalities have already occurred in jails and prisons around the world. In Missouri as well, Lincoln County officials reported on Monday that two inmates at the Troy jail contracted COVID-19 despite the jail being on lockdown, as are most such facilities these days.
According to The New York Times, more than 100 prisoners already have died from the virus. The Times editorialized, “thousands more could if prisons and elected officials do not take steps to protect the incarcerated now. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union predicted that an explosion of cases in jails could cause the total death count in the United States to double.”
Public health and public safety both require careful consideration by elected officials. Federal prison officials and those in several states and municipalities have wisely instituted large-scale inmate releases due to the pandemic. Missouri and Boone County officials should follow suit.
In recent years, bipartisan agreement has moved toward being smart, not necessarily just “tough” on crime. We applaud the decrease in our state prison population from 33,000 in 2017 to 26,000 as of January. Many factors have played a role in the cost-saving inmate reduction, including specialized courts for drug offenses and mental health, changes in the criminal code and recidivism-reduction programs in state prisons. Contrary to opponents’ predictions of a crime surge, these releases have coincided with a reduction in overall crime. From 2017 through 2018, the latest complete figures available, the Missouri State Highway Patrol reported a 7.7% decrease in the overall crime index.
We realize individuals held in prisons and jails face charges or were convicted for a wide variety of crimes; they vary in how potentially dangerous they are to the community. Among them are a few thousand men and women statewide — convicted of nonviolent crimes and/or nearing their release date — who could be safely soon sent home from our prisons and jails, helping to prevent further spread of the pandemic. Hundreds could be released and supervised through the state’s parole and probation network via electronic monitoring, phone or computerized check-ins to ensure public safety while limiting in-person contact.
As of Thursday, the Corrections Department website announced there were yet no plans to release prisoners to prevent COVID-19 spread. We’re grateful that no known outbreak in a Missouri prison has occurred to date, but why risk the lives of potentially hundreds of prisoners, staff, other support-service workers, their families and communities?
We call on the governor, the Corrections Department director and other state officials to reconsider and prudently set free many inmates, decreasing prison-population density to protect lives.
In Boone County, those awaiting trial for or convicted of nonviolent crimes would be excellent candidates for release to home supervision. As of Tuesday, the jail’s website showed that at least a few dozen of the 187 people incarcerated there are charged with or have been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Unless there are particular concerns, county and state officials ought to release those incarcerated over age 60 and individuals who are immunocompromised or have severe pulmonary conditions.
These people are particularly vulnerable if they become infected. Individuals who have already served more than 25 years in state prison would also be excellent candidates for release, as studies regularly show them to be of minimal risk for recidivism.
Significantly reducing the incarcerated population would allow greater physical distancing and thus balance public health with the safety of our communities. Prior to any release, each prisoner could be tested and quarantined if they test positive.
We beseech Missouri and Boone officials to reduce the incarcerated population. To express your concerns please call the offices of Gov. Parson at 573-751-3222; DOC Director Precycthe at 573-526-6607; and Sheriff Carey at 573-875-1111, Ext. 6219.
The Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation is a social justice and peace group.