Much of Missouri has been designated as a COVID-19 hotspot. Positivity rates averaged nearly 11% over the past week, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services COVID-19 Dashboard. The current number of confirmed lab cases stands at 57,379 with nearly 1,000 being new cases. It turns out that tracking COVID-19 in Missouri’s prisons is a little different.
Tracking COVID-19 in Missouri’s Prisons
Aside from the data reported for the general Missouri population, state and federal prisons collect their own data. Correctional facilities are considered to be superspreader sights, meaning they are built-in hotspots for the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. This was confirmed by researchers in a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). That’s why it’s so important to have a comprehensive testing plan in place. Unfortunately, we just aren’t there yet.
According to the COVID Prison Project (CPP), an organization that tracks nationwide data to monitor COVID-19 in correctional facilities, Missouri ranks 10th in the number of offenders who are tested. Reported data show that on average, we’ve tested nearly 919 out of every 1000 offenders in our state and federal prisons. That’s far better than the national average of 393. However, it should be noted that 10 states plus the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t report their COVID-19 testing rates per capita.
Missing & Unreliable Data
Because prisons are super-spreader sights we would expect the COVID-19 positivity rate in Missouri’s prisons would be higher than the rest of the population. However, the data that’s currently available from the CPP are surprisingly low. Upon closer examination, we see that information reported by states is sometimes incomplete and often contradictory. For example, current figures for Missouri and our border states show a wide range of positivity rates (# testing positive/# tested):
|State||# of Inmates Tested||# Testing Positive||Positivity Rate|
Simply put, we really don’t believe that Missouri’s prisons have such a low positivity rate, when the state average is hovering around 11%. Likewise, it’s highly unlikely that only 1% and 2% of inmates in Nebraska and Oklahoma respectively have tested positive. We’re only able to draw conclusions and improve what we do when we have reliable data, and we have some real concerns that this just isn’t in place on a national scale.
The COVID Prison Project and other groups like them aren’t able to collect their own data–they must rely on self-reported data from each state’s Department of Corrections. Some departments provide partial data, while others provide none at all. Some provide cumulative totals over time, while others may share data selected from specific date ranges. Plus, there’s no way of verifying the accuracy of data these state departments submit. That makes it much more difficult to know whether officials are exercising due diligence in protecting those who are incarcerated or working in our state and federal prisons.
Tracking COVID-19 in Missouri’s Prisons
Data published by the Missouri Department of Corrections breaks down COVID-19 data per adult facility since March 2020. Assuming data are current (no date stamp), it appears that trends are moving in the right direction in most facilities with three main exceptions. The good news is that family and friends of inmates can now visit on a limited capacity at Algoa Correctional Center and Jefferson City Correctional Center (both in Jefferson City), South Central Correctional Center (Licking), and Maryville Treatment Center (Maryville). Staff at the Western Missouri Correctional Center (Cameron) will reopen its facility to visitors on August 20.
Nationwide Problem, Nationwide Response
We’ve said many times that a nationwide problem requires a nationwide response. The same holds true at the state level. We simply must do a better job of tracking COVID-19 data so we can improve the level of care for all Missourians, including those who are incarcerated.
Dedicated researchers such as those with the COVID Prison Project are working tirelessly to advocate on behalf of those who are confined to high-risk environments, but their efforts are hampered by missing or questionable self-reported data.
Many inmates have had a lifetime of disadvantage, and mistakes have cost them dearly. Now in the Age of COVID, they feel undervalued and forgotten in a sea of bureaucracy. Improving how we track and report data is essential, and there should be a statewide commitment at the highest levels of government in Jefferson City.
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Top Graphic Credit: Guido Coppa