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Reform group calls for improvements to Missouri’s prison health care conditions

Jasjyot Singh Hans
Special to NPR

Health care services in Missouri prisons are declining, according to a prison reform advocacy group. The nonprofit says providers are leaving, emergency care is getting denied and 66 residents have died this year.

Health care services in Missouri state prison facilities are deteriorating according to activists and groups like the Missouri Prison Reform.

The nonprofit has been receiving concerns from prison residents, their families and current medical staff about the health care conditions for years, but Executive Director Lori Curry said conditions have been getting worse. She said the organization has received complaints from both staff and residents as recently as this week.

“There is clearly a problem with keeping people healthy in our prisons, and I don’t see that getting resolved anytime soon,” Curry said.

Missouri Prison Reform identified several key concerns, including provider shortages, extended wait times and lost and falsified medical records. As of May 30, there have been 66 deaths this year in Missouri Department of Corrections facilities, according to records the organization obtained from the department. Curry thinks many of these deaths could’ve been avoided if residents were treated sooner, or at all.

“A lack of medical care is really contributing to an increased number of deaths in the prisons,” she said.

Curry said some residents have been denied immediate medical care when attempting to self-declare emergencies. In one case, it took 45 minutes for a resident to be taken to a provider.

“Within a few minutes, sometimes, somebody can pass when it could’ve been prevented,” she said. “When people aren’t getting medical care, it can really mean life or death for them.”

Erin Brown is a former nurse for Centurion, the current medical provider of the Missouri Department of Corrections, and worked in Missouri prisons for eight years. She said she left last November because of poor working conditions.

In the last weekend she worked, she said she had to care for more than 20 patients alone in the infirmary, which is where patients are usually admitted when they’re critically ill, recovering from surgery or have injuries too severe to care for in their cells.

“It was just too much,” Brown said. “I’m not losing my life to this place anymore. I’m just not going to do it.”

Brown said part of the fault is on Centurion for having inexperienced management and not caring enough about staff and prison residents. She said a nurse, who was only legally allowed to work 16 hour shifts, had to work at a facility for almost 24 hours because no one was there to relieve her.

“She can’t leave because she will be abandoning and nobody will do the job,” Brown said. “It was insane to me. But [Centurion doesn’t] know that because they don’t know, and they don’t try to know, and they don’t really care. They just care that, ‘Oh, there’s technically a nurse in the facility.’”

She said the prisons’ current health care conditions are a form of human abuse.

“I get they have certain crimes or certain allegations, but at the same time, they are still somebody’s loved one,” she said. “There’s not hardly any light shed on people incarcerated. I don’t think the general public truly knows what’s going on.”

Both Brown and Curry want accountability from the Department of Corrections for the decline in medical conditions.

In an email statement, Missouri Department of Corrections Communications Director Karen Pojmann said the main issue is a staffing shortage that leads to problems like extended wait times and mass sick calls, and staffing shortages are a national crisis. She said the facilities are accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and prison residents have free on-site medical care available 24/7.

Pojmann said at Jefferson City Correctional Center, the facility Curry said is experiencing the most issues, a new health services administrator and three nurses started last week, and three additional nurses are scheduled to start this week.

“The department employs medical contract monitors who monitor and evaluate operations at our facilities to ensure residents receive medical care that is equivalent to the community standard; that all mandates of the contract are fulfilled; and that providers are compliant with policies, procedures, regulations and laws,” Pojmann said.

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Madison Holcomb