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COVID-19 Within Prison: ‘We’re in Here, but We Have No Control Over What's Going On’

A Google Maps image showing the location of the Southeast Missouri Correctional Center outside Charleston, Missouri – a town in the Bootheel.

Carlos Wade is an inmate at the Southeast Correctional Center in the Bootheel, and is currently working in the facility’s medical unit to keep things sanitized and, ideally, help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Southeast Correctional Center recently had an outbreak of COVID-19 cases – where 47 inmates and 20 staff members tested positive, so Carlos called me to talk about what life is like in prison during the ongoing pandemic and about some of his concerns.

According to the Department of Corrections, since the initial sentinel, or facility-wide testing was done, all but one inmate and three staff members have recovered from COVID-19.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org

Carlos Wade: I don't want to be exposed to it, so I'm practicing social distancing, I’m wearing my mask. But I did hear around the prison yard, that they’re not going to give us visitations back until every case is out of this institution.

I kind of help patients in medical because they're not able to get out or anything, and I keep the medical building clean. But I mean, it [COVID-19] definitely has an impact on people. People’s behavior is sort of is changing - people are kind of irritable. People don't have anything to do.

We’re pretty much just cooped up, so to speak, on top of each other on a small yard or even on the big yard.

So, I mean, I can honestly only say for me, impact-wise, I mean, it kind of gets frustrating to me, but I stay busy because I feel like as long as I'm busy doing something for somebody else, I can kind of keep my mind off what's going on, dealing with the situation.

I want people to know that some guys are taking it serious and some guys are not. At first, the majority of the people were wearing their marks, but now that people are feeling like it's leaving the institution, a lot of people have removed the masks.

And I want society to basically know that we’re in here, but we have no control over what's going on. For me personally, I feel like they are doing the best they can with the resources they have, and it could have been a lot worse - because they kept it confined to basically one housing unit when it hit the institution. It didn’t spread to other housing units, for real.

So, I mean, kudos to them for that, but for the most part, we’re just journeying through the journey of COVID-19. We call it “COVID Island,” for real. It's like an island. We’re just on an island right now – we have a pandemic going on inside this institution.

Rebecca Smith: I'm wondering, what are you hoping for next steps? I mean, hopefully knock on wood, you're not going to see more cases…

Carlos: … that they can keep it out of the institution, that it don’t resurface inside the institution. Because the only way that the virus can come into the institution – outside workers have to bring it in. We don’t leave the institution.

So, hopefully, they take more precautions out in society - to the point that they realize that they could possibly bring it back in here and it can be much more worse than it was the first time.

So, I…

Prison Phone System: ‘You have one minute left.’

Carlos: … want them to practice social distance, keep their hands clean, wear their masks, because it can actually come back to this institution, and it could be 10 times worse than it was. So, that's what I look forward to, I pray that they do.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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