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Department of Retaliation: Inside Missouri's Prison System 

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Lynda Miller was working as a corrections officer in Bonne Terre in 2016 when an inmate attacked her. She still lives with the effects of the attack today. - COURTESY LYNDA MILLER
  • COURTESY LYNDA MILLER
  • Lynda Miller was working as a corrections officer in Bonne Terre in 2016 when an inmate attacked her. She still lives with the effects of the attack today.

Unending Consequences

Given the hostile work environment, dangerous nature of the job and the fact that Missouri has the lowest paid state workers in the country, it's no surprise the MODOC is struggling with staff shortages. Multiple employees who have worked at the department for more than a decade say that when they began it was the norm to be surrounded by coworkers with twenty years on the job. Now, one current employee at Bonne Terre says that he'd guess the average new hire stays for about two months.

In April, COVID-19 began spreading through Missouri's prisons, and after a recent spike, the department had recorded nearly 2,000 total cases among inmates and staff. The prison in Bonne Terre accounts for more than a fifth of those cases. Employees say that at Bonne Terre the pandemic has caused staff shortages to turn dire. One current corrections officer there says that "industry" employees who manage inmates at their manufacturing jobs are doing the jobs of corrections officers, as are "rec officers." I asked who "rec officers" were and was told, "They're PE teachers basically."

If you didn't think too much about this, you might assume that all these staffing issues would be good for inmates. You'd be wrong. Staff shortages jeopardize inmates' access to recreation and communication with the outside and can severely delay the delivery of medical care and food. In understaffed prisons, inmates have reported not being let out of their cells until early afternoon and being allowed infrequent showers. Inmate safety also becomes more precarious. A corrections officer currently working at Bonne Terre says that this summer one inmate committed thirteen sexual assaults in one week but no action was taken against him other than altering his meals.

Giammanco, the former prison teacher turned author, says that when it comes to prison reform, she refers to herself as a "hybrid" in the sense that she has worked in prisons but she also has a spouse who is incarcerated.

"It's important to fight for better conditions for employees," she says. "Because better conditions for employees makes for better conditions for inmates."

Because corrections officers spend as many as twelve hours a day in the same facility where offenders spend all day and all night, their fates are intertwined. Especially during a pandemic.

These past few months, offenders' families have complained that inmates who tested positive for the virus were not being properly quarantined. They say that inmates who required health care were unable to see doctors or get their prescriptions. Likewise, corrections officers say they didn't have proper personal protective equipment, and coronavirus protocols they received were often confused or not followed thoroughly.

Both inmates and staff have complained that offenders who test positive are still being transferred from one facility to another. One inmate in Boonville says that facility recently had four or five COVID-19 positive inmates transferred there from Fulton.

"They got them all mixed in with us," he says. "They're not quarantined. It's not possible for us to be even really quarantined, to be really social distanced, because we're so close together. We're packed like sardines. This is an open-based camp, so we're like one foot away from each other. I can reach my arm out and touch the next [guy]."

Many similar complaints have surfaced anonymously on Twitter, which has become the preferred whistleblowing method in Missouri prisons. However, unlike the Hard Facts Newsletter, the Twitter accounts serve as outlets for both corrections officers and offenders' families, the former fearing reprisal if they attach their names to complaints and the latter worried about public criticism being traced back to their locked-up loved ones.

The Hard Facts Newsletter is one of the ways whistleblowers publicize allegations of MODOC misconduct. - CONTRIBUTED
  • CONTRIBUTED
  • The Hard Facts Newsletter is one of the ways whistleblowers publicize allegations of MODOC misconduct.

Daily, sometimes hourly, the Twitter account @MissouriPrison reports information sent to it by inmates and staff. Oftentimes, MODOC will release an official statement only to have @MissouriPrison tweet information in direct contradiction. After the MODOC employees began getting in touch with her to tell her about what was going on in their places of work, the woman behind the account began posting that information as well.

"I'm overwhelmed because I never thought this would get as big as it's gotten, that I'd get so many followers and have so many people sending me information," she says in an interview. "I think right now, in terms of who's following this, it's about an even number of family members who have someone incarcerated and Department of Corrections staff members."

Despite the MODOC's stated purpose to "foster rehabilitation," all this dysfunction makes it more likely that people leaving the institutions will be changed for the worse. Several studies have shown that offenders released from prison suffer PTSD at rates far higher than average. The woman who operates @MissouriPrison says that her incarcerated loved one has PTSD from his time locked up. "He has dealt with so much in life that he doesn't get easily shaken," she says. "But this virus spreading through the facilities and the way the department is handling it is getting to him."

And then there are people like Lynda Miller, who came to the prison in Bonne Terre for the reliable paycheck. In June 2016, while working her shift as a correction officer, she says, an inmate used her "like a punching bag." While she was in the emergency room she got a "a hundred and fifty" missed calls and text messages from people worried about her. Instead of replying to each one, she says, she posted two photos of herself with a note about what happened. "I just took some pictures and sent it out and said, 'This is me, this is what's going on.'"

Miller says her bosses perceived the social media post as her trying "to take the shine" off the department. A few weeks later Miller was scheduled to have a surgery, and it was around that time she got an ultimatum: "They said that if I'm not coming to work the next day I need to come in and sign resignation paperwork." That was the end of her MODOC career and she's struggled to pay for the medical care she needs ever since.

Today as a result of the beating Miller has headaches, rapidly deteriorating eyesight and depression. She worries she'll be blind by the time she turns 60.

Then there's the anger, too.

"I've got some really bad anger issues," she says. "I don't like it. There's nothing I can do about it."

Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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