Greene County, Missouri, broke their daily record for new COVID-19 cases on Aug. 13, when a county “trailer jail” reported that every single inmate in the facility tested positive. Springfield News-Leader reporter Katie Kull first reported on the outbreak, which impacted at least 108 prisoners. 

“Initially around 70 some tested positive, and they were taken out of the trailer and put into a pod in the regular jail building. And then about 30 inmates were left in the regular trailer to quarantine, and then they retested everybody and everybody tested positive. So they moved the rest of the people back into the trailer,” said Kull. 

As of Aug. 25, 101 inmates and 46 staff at the jail had tested positive for the virus. It is difficult to ascertain the true numbers of inmates who have tested positive because the jail is not counting inmates who have been released nor those who’s test results have not come in yet.

The “trailer jail” is an addition to the regular jail in order to accommodate more prisoners. Because of overcrowding in Greene County jails, their inmates are frequently moved around. Many of the prisoners say that the trailer is by far the worst place they have stayed. 

Kull reports, “It’s a small area. I mean, they say that if you spread your arms out, you can touch both ends of the trailer. And it’s just, I mean, it’s a trailer… it’s three [trailers] smushed together kind of. There’s a day room on one side basically, and then bathrooms and everything on the other side.”

This setup has made social distancing physically impossible as prisoners are stacked on top of each other. The lack of social distancing compounded with an absence of personal protective equipment (PPE) helps explain why every single inmate in the trailer tested positive. 

“Our county actually here did not implement a mask requirement. They did not have any kind of mask mandate ever. Our city proper did, but not the county. So masks actually weren’t required, and the inmates were not given masks until after the first case was already recorded inside that facility,” said Kull. 

The lack of masks in the facility is still a problem, with inmates and their families reporting to Kull that they are only being given one mask every few days. Officials were evasive with answers regarding masks and other measures being taken to stop the spread of the virus, but maintained that they were keeping the jail “as safe an environment as they can.” (After speaking with TRNN Kull reported that the local activists including Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, and members of the Missouri state house were calling for more transparency from jail officials as well as more PPE for inmates). 

Many jails around the country have been releasing prisoners with minor offenses or very little time left on their sentences. The county prosecutor for Greene County indicated that he has done this and intends to release more people in light of the outbreak in the “trailer jail.” But this action may be too little too late, as Kull has received reports that inmates in the larger jail complex have also tested positive and have been moved to the “trailer jail” to quarantine. 

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Molly Shah is a freelance writer and social media consultant based in Berlin. Prior to moving to Germany Molly was an activist, teacher and lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow her on Twitter: @MollyOShah