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Jan. 4, 2024 |  By: Rudi Keller - Missouri Independent

Memorial service seeks answers on rapid increase in Missouri inmate deaths

hudson smith

By Rudi Keller - Missouri Independent

On Dec. 15, Michael Hudson became the 127th inmate to die in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections during 2023.

Hudson, 30, was stabbed to death in a fight in the recreation room of the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, his mother LaShon Hudson said Wednesday.

She fought tears and anger as she described the horror of learning about his death and the frustration at the lack of information about his death coming from the department.

Prison officials told her that her son died of unknown causes. It was only the coroner who examined his body who told her the truth, she said at a memorial service  in the Missouri Capitol organized by the Missouri Justice Coalition for the 364 inmates who died in 2021, 2022 and 2023. 

Hudson, who lives in Kansas City, said she called corrections department headquarters in Jefferson City for answers.

“‘We can’t answer anything, it’s under a lot of investigation,’” she said she was told. “How long would it be before we get the autopsy report? ‘Oh, it could take up to six months.’”

She knows the recreation room where her son died is monitored with video cameras and is supposed to be patrolled by corrections officers to quell trouble. She’s been told she can’t see the video, Hudson said.

“Why do I have to get a lawyer to watch a video of you all allowing my child to be murdered?” Hudson said.

The two-hour memorial service was timed for the opening day of the General Assembly, coalition director Michelle Smith said. The number of deaths in Missouri prisons is at an all-time high, she noted, and little notice is being given to the deaths.

“We are trying to raise awareness of the fact that hundreds of people die in Missouri prisons every single year and nothing is done,” Smith said in an interview before the memorial service.

The coalition has demands for action from the state on inmate deaths – legislative hearings and investigations, action by the state auditor, establishment of an independent prison ombudsman program and outside oversight committee and more transparency from the department itself.

Deaths are expected in any population, Smith said. The issue is that annual deaths have gone up more than one-third – and the death rate has almost doubled –  in the past decade, even as prison populations have been cut by 25%.

From 2012 to 2014, department data shows, there was an average of 31,442 incarcerated people in state prisons. Deaths averaged 89 per year. 

Over the past three years, with an average of 23,409 incarcerated people in state prisons, deaths have averaged 122 per year.

There have been more than 100 deaths in Missouri prisons in five of the last six years.

The death rate in state prisons has climbed from 2.98 per thousand in 2014 to 5.42 per thousand in 2023. For the state as a whole, the rate was 12 deaths per 1,000 people in 2021, the most recent year with data available from the Department of Health and Senior Services.

Smith said drug overdoses, violence and inadequate medical care are the cause of the increase.

At the Licking Prison, at least two corrections officers have been arrested for smuggling drugs into the facility, one in April and another in November who is accused of smuggling more than 100 grams of meth in fake soda cans.

The corrections department did not respond Wednesday for a request for comment on the high numbers of inmate deaths. In an email response to The Independent last month regarding a death at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, spokeswoman Karen Pojmann defended the department’s record on inmate safety.

“It should be noted that the death rate for Missourians inside state prisons is actually much lower than the death rate for Missourians outside state prisons,” Pojmann said. “The major causes of the deaths are the same for both populations: cancer and heart disease.”

Comparing death rates inside state prisons to death rates in the general population is a distraction from the issue, Smith said.

“Just the fact that she compared prison to general society, we call that gaslighting, right, when somebody’s using something that ain’t got nothing to do with what we are talking about, just to deflect from the fact that all of these people have died,” she said. 

During the memorial service, attended by about 60 people including other family members of deceased inmates, the names of all 128 deceased inmates who died in 2023 were read out loud and their names, printed on hearts, placed in a bowl.

“People don’t lose their humanity when they go to prison,” Smith said. “They’re still human beings. Most people don’t go in with a death sentence. Over 90% of people in prison have an out (release) date, so people should not be dying in prison.”