This story was sponsored in part by a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant.
Multiple corrections officers have been assaulted during staffing shortages in the pandemic.
“They should have seen it coming.”
That is how one corrections officer currently employed at Southeast Correctional Center described the melee that occurred there on January 26. During the evening shift, thirteen inmates at the prison in Charleston “severely” attacked eight corrections officers, sending all eight to the hospital, according to the official MODOC press alert about the incident.
The corrections officer from SECC spoke to the RFT
on the condition we wouldn’t use his name for fear of repercussions from superiors. He said that in the weeks leading up to the attack morale has been low among the officers due to the facility running on a bare bones crew of about 200 C.O.s when the normal staffing for SECC would be around 300. The corrections officer described a vicious cycle in which the lack of staffing leads to higher job dissatisfaction, which in turn causes more staff to leave.
“The warden even said, middle of last year in one of his town hall meetings, that one of the main reasons why people are leaving is because they don't feel safe,” the corrections officer said. “And we’re saying, ‘There’s a reason for that.’”
The officer went on to say, “Offenders won't admit it to everybody, but they want structure. They want officers there. Because they feel safe. If they feel safe, and we have the numbers and we feel safe, then everything is going to go smooth. But if we don't have enough staff to protect and look out for most of the offenders, they’re going to act out.”
He said that when staff has a diminished presence, some inmates feel compelled to handle grievances and settle scores themselves, which makes the lives of the entire inmate population more difficult.
On Monday, the inmate advocacy group Missouri Prison Reform posted a message to its website from a man incarcerated at SECC that largely corroborated what the officer who spoke to the RFT
said. “The problem in this camp is that there is no consequences for anything. You can gamble right out in the open,” the inmate said. “There's drugs in every housing unit, people stealing…from the chow hall and the guards just watch it happen.”
Tension among some of the inmates began to boil over last week. The day before the attack, C.O.s had to talk down a group of inmates threatening to cause a disruption.
Then, on January 26, a female corrections officer was working in Housing Unit 6 when multiple inmates “swarmed” her. The entire attack lasted ten minutes, the MODOC official alert stated, but how many minutes elapsed before support arrived to aid the targeted corrections officer is unknown. At least one corrections officer was intercepted by an inmate on his way to help, resulting in a scuffle away from the main fight.
According to an individual familiar with the security camera footage of the attack, at one point an inmate tried to stop another from joining in the fracas, telling him it wasn’t worth it. Instead of listening to his fellow-inmate, this individual got ahold of an officer’s pepper spray and emptied it on the C.O.
Injuries to correctional officers, according to the one who spoke to the RFT
, included broken ribs, noses and ankles, as well as an injury sustained by one officer when the back of his head hit concrete.
“All of the staff members who were involved in the assault were experienced custody staff. Some had many years of experience,” MODOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said in response to concerns that non-custodial staff filling custodial positions may have played a role in the response. She added: “Staff members who are not currently corrections officers sometimes work overtime as corrections officers but only if they have been trained as corrections officers and their training requirements are current.”
“People need to know what goes on inside there,” said Tim Cutt, the director of the state corrections officers union, MOCOA. “They need to know those heroes behind those fences.”
Last week’s incident at SECC comes on the heels of the inmate riot at Maryville Treatment Center, a facility run by MODOC in northwest Missouri. On New Year’s Day about 25 inmates caused $30,000 worth of damage, trashing inmate housing and administrative offices.
Said the inmate in SECC whose message was posted to Missouri Prison Reform’s website: “It’s time DOC took back control of the prisons from all these thunder cat wanna-be’s before the old heads do it for them.”
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