JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Family members and friends of inmates in the Missouri prison system are begging for lawmakers to require oversight of the Department of Corrections.
During a three-hour committee hearing Tuesday night, inmates’ families spoke of allegations that describe “atrocities” within the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC). The testimony, powerful and emotional, hoping to change the state statute.
Even some former prisoners like Keith Carnes, who was released from his life sentence Monday, spoke in favor of creating a committee to investigate complaints and prisoner deaths.
The department says there already is oversight and accountability.
St. Louis Democrat Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins’ legislation includes a 10-member committee to aid the department.
“My father died in DOC so this is in no way shape, form or fashion political for me, it’s very personal,” Collins said. “When I look at this DOC oversight committee, I look at them as overseeing everything, not just custody but probation and parole.”
Collins told the committee and a room full of people how she drives across the state to visit the state’s facilities, stopping in and doing what is called “pop-ups.”
“About 95% of the documents I do request they hand over, but the videos they don’t because that’s something they do not want us to see,” Collins said. “A lot of those complaints are medical issues.”
Dozens testified in favor including Carnes, a Kansas City man released from prison Monday after spending nearly 19 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
“I could be anywhere right now, the next day after being released and exonerated, I’m here,” Carnes said. “Please take this serious.”
Carnes told the committee now that’s out of prison, he feels like it’s his duty to give back and help those still inside.
“The last couple of weeks, when I was just there, we’re supposed to get showers every other day, going up to six days before we could get a shower for whatever excuses they were giving,” Carnes said. “They need somebody on the outside to govern and make them know there are consequences.”
Another former inmate, James Naugles, served 22 years and lost both his legs while in prison.
“I am living proof of he negligence and the ill treatment that go in the Departments of Corrections dealing with medical,” Naugles said. “I did enter the Department of Corrections with both legs and lost both due to a brown recluse spider bite.”
Naugles said once he released in February 2018 he went to Barnes Hospitals in St. Louis who helped through his medical issues.
Trisha Boyles testified in favor of the bill because allegedly her brother was attacked by other inmates.
“Both of his front teeth were knocked out and he was stabbed,” Boyles said. “During that process our family was not able to hear from him for nearly four months.”
She said her brother had to go through surgery by himself and once he his visiting hours were resumed, he still didn’t have teeth.
“The people that hurt him are still in the same facility,” Boyles said holding back tears. “Schools have oversight, banks have oversight, even Target has an oversight committee.”
Founder of the Missouri Prison Reform Lori Curry told the committee they hear from staff members constantly because they are concerned if they tell the department they will be retaliated against.
“The facilities are severely understaffed and that makes it dangerous for both staff and those incarcerated,” Curry said. “A staff member who contacted us because of an incarcerated person was laying in his own urine for days and staff kept saying he was doing it for attention. Eventually they found out that this man had…leukemia.”
The committee would be made up of two representatives, two senators, the director of DOC, a licensed physician, a law or criminal justice professor, a clergy member and one person who has been incarcerated with DOC and been released in the past seven years and is not on probation.
Members would meet four times a year and then submit a report to the General Assembly in December. The cost for the committee would be around $110,000 to reimburse members’ expenses.
Karen Pojmann is a spokeswoman for DOC. She said Wednesday the department does not have a position on the bill but said some of the topics that were brought up during committee were too broad, not all true and “can be neither verified nor disputed.”
She said all allegations made by inmates regarding staff conduct, living conditions assaults or other issues are investigated. The department has internal investigators at the facilities and at the central office in Jefferson City.
Staff members can call a 24-hour confidential and anonymous hotline to report complaints or abuse.
“The number of complaints received has declined in the last three years, and the number of days to respond has also decreased, meaning resolutions are being reached in a more timely fashion,” Pojmann said in an email.
Pojmann said that facilities throughout the state, even though short staffed, all have trained medical staff on site 24/7 at no cost to the offender. Over the last year, the number of medical grievances filed by inmates have declined.
The grievance process, she said, is “like other government processes, can move slowly.” Pojmann said the rate is about 7 per 100 inmates. It’s common for the same offender to file multiple grievances it most inmates don’t file any.
Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, said halfway through the hours-long committee he would vote for the bill and said he believed it’s a “favorable measure.”
No one testified in opposition and DOC was not present at the hearing.
The bill needs one final vote from the committee before heading to the House floor for debate. The chairman of the committee says that vote could come as early as next week. Session ends May 13.