ST. LOUIS – Both inmates and officers in the Missouri Department of Corrections are reporting that they’re reaching breaking points. Those tensions have resulted in two recent lockdowns.
Crystal Thomas didn’t hear from her husband, Greg Thomas, last week at the usual time. Then she heard about a disturbance inside his prison.
“I was waiting to see when I was going to hear from him or if I was going to hear from him,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to do next.”
According the DOC, on July 28, “…residents of a housing wing staged a protest and attempted to create a barrier, preventing additional staff from responding.
“The unrest spread to three other housing wings, where some offenders engaged in fights with one another or damaged property.”
Thomas didn’t find out until morning that her husband was safe. He was not part of the disturbance and was in a different wing. However, he was still affected by the lockdown and unable to move from his jail cell or make a phone call.
“When he called I don’t think I even said hello, I think I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m glad to finally hear from you,’” she said.
Tim Cutt, a representative for the Missouri Correction’s Officers Association, said officers were also happy to go home with good news.
“That was a bad deal, but I’m glad my staff could get in there and take care of it,” he said. “There were no injuries, minimal property damage from what I’m hearing. They did an awesome job up there and I’m proud of them.”
Cutt said tensions are rising because of concerns over COVID-19 and staffing levels he said are strained.
“If the staff are happy, if the offender population is happy, we go in there and do our job and go home,” he said. “But if one party or the other is not content, they’re going to have issues.”
Crystal Thomas said she fears the lack of human contact could be brewing trouble. Until COVID restrictions, she would visit every week. The entire family visited at least every month.
“That is probably one of the biggest problems in there is the fact they can’t see their family members or, you know, their wives,” she said.
The prison in Bonne Terre also faced a lockdown, the week before Pacific’s disturbance. The DOC said it was resolved after two hours and stemmed from concerns over COVID testing. Bonne Terre last reported 34 active COVID cases. Pacific reported 54 active cases.
Karen Pojmann, communications director the Missouri Department of Corrections, released two briefings on the recent disturbances.
DOC description of the July 28 MECC incident:
“A disturbance occurred the evening of Tuesday, July 28, at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Pacific, Missouri. Around 5 p.m., after two offenders causing a disruption were restrained, residents of a housing wing staged a protest and attempted to create a barrier, preventing additional staff from responding. The crowd of offenders eventually dispersed and returned to their housing unit, where they refused to comply with staff instructions and declined to enter their cells. The unrest spread to three other housing wings, where some offenders engaged in fights with one another or damaged property. Trained Corrections Emergency Response Teams (CERT) deployed from Farmington Correctional Center and Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center assisted MECC CERT members in returning offenders to their cells. Order had been restored by 12 a.m. with no staff or offender injuries.”
DOC description of the July 20 ERDCC incident:
“A resident of one of the housing wings had symptoms of COVID-19. Consequently, that resident was removed from the wing and relocated to an isolation unit on Friday, and the housing unit was placed in quarantine status. The symptomatic offender’s positive COVID test results were received Monday, and the other residents were informed. When all offenders were required to return to their cells for count (a normal daily occurrence at all facilities), some residents refused to enter their cells and claimed, inaccurately, that the COVID-19-positive offender’s test results were available earlier than reported and the other residents were being misled. The rest of the facility was placed on lockdown. Several staff members talked to the offenders about the situation. Eventually, after about two hours, all residents returned to their cells. No one was assaulted. No one was injured. There were no uses of force.”