08 April, 2020

Missouri Prisons' COVID-19 Preparations

If COVID-19 breaches the gates of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center — or, really, any prison — those of us confined would likely be screwed. There's too much common space. What space each person can call his own is intensely cramped. Everyone here shares his living quarters with another human. Three cramped dining halls serve the entire 2,800-man population. Half of us use the same gym, chapel, library, medical facility, and classrooms. How could one hope to stem the spread of a virulent contagion under these circumstances?

There's only so much that can be done, but steps are being taken. The Missouri DOC calls its efforts against an outbreak a "Virus Containment Action." It's shitty language to describe a good idea that's being inconsistently enacted.

A properly answered questionnaire and a temperature check are required before any employee gets past the gates. Hand sanitizer dispensers suddenly appear throughout the facility. Assigned seating in the dining hall mostly separates the occupants of one wing from another. At my janitorial job, where I tidy offices, wiping all surfaces with bleach solution is now part of my daily responsibilities. And still more changes are promised. Yesterday's e-mail from the Director of Adult Institutions says that masks for staff and prisoners will soon be distributed. Okay, I thought, but will it be soon enough?

Amazingly, the DOC's considered the social impact of this coronavirus. The Department went so far as to arrange limited free communication for all 34,000 prisoners in its custody. Every prisoner is now getting two free ten-minute phone calls and one free JPay e-mail per week. The average Missouri prisoner has to buy every necessary hygiene product (except soap and toilet paper) with an $8.50 monthly stipend. The small benefit of free calls and e-mail makes a major difference to those who can't afford regular contact with loved ones.

The DOC's commitment to minimizing the effect of COVID-19 on Missouri prisons impresses me, but its employees' enforcement of the Virus Containment Action are, at the institutional level, half-assed and inconsistent. No one responsible for putting the Action into action seems to put any thought into it. Temperature checks were implemented very late in the game. (That's what I've been told, anyway. It's not like I get to see the guards and caseworkers reporting to work.) Just as bad, the separation of housing units at meals and other times isn't rigorously enough enforced to make a real difference. One day we're segregated while eating — A-Wing on one side of the dining hall, B-Wing on the other — while the next day we're ordered to lump together in one big, germy group.

I wipe down the boss's keyboard and mouse with bleach solution, but he enters in the mornings without washing or sanitizing his hands after touching who knows how many door handles and surfaces between his car and his office. Heading down this epidemiological rabbit hole could drive a person mad, but we've got to follow it a little way down; the current state of the world demands we make a serious effort, or else we might as well be making none at all.

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