Destini Hutson spent much of her childhood picturing what life would be like when her dad came home.
Over time, her plans turned to the practical: teach him how to use an iPhone, help him find a job, go to Chick-fil-A together.
“‘It’s a lot that you’re going to have to learn,’” Hutson told her dad, Donald, who went to prison in 1997 when she was still a baby.
Those plans came to a halt last September, when Donald Hutson died of a drug overdose at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific. He’s one of more than 430 inmates who have overdosed in state prisons since May 2017, according to internal data from the Missouri Department of Corrections. While there are many ways drugs are smuggled into prisons, DOC employees say internal corruption is a key part of the problem.
Jacob Riley worked as a corrections officer at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center for about seven years — and during that time, he said he saw at least eight inmates overdose.
“It’s certainly a little scary to see somebody dying in front of you,” Riley said, remembering an inmate he found overdosing in the bathroom. “Someone with a super purple face whose tongue is hanging out of his mouth, breathing like it sounds like he’s trying to breathe through a wet paper bag.”
According to DOC records, since 2017, prison medical staff has administered dozens of doses of naloxone, or Narcan, a life-saving drug that quickly blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.
Still, the data show at least five inmates have died in the past two years in Missouri after taking controlled substances like heroin, fentanyl and synthetic cannabinoids.
The battle to keep drugs out of prisons is nothing new.
But Missouri DOC employees say corrupt staff is also to blame.
We spoke with seven former and current DOC employees for this story, who all said that staff members are smuggling drugs into Missouri prisons and selling them, often with no legal consequences.
They gave numerous examples of officers, kitchen staff and maintenance workers caught bringing drugs into prisons.
A current employee at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center said a staff member had been caught smoking marijuana earlier this year with inmates. We’re not using the employee’s name to protect their job.
“It’s like a cancer. You can find these [employees] and get rid of them, but there’s always going to be more,” the employee said, adding that the DOC rarely prosecutes corrupt staff to avoid negative publicity.
DOC employees caught with contraband are brought to the warden’s office and forced to resign, in a process Riley said is known as “getting walked out.”
“You’re not going to get your unemployment, obviously, but you get to leave,” Riley said. “No muss, no fuss. No paper trail.”
Employees have been arrested for bringing contraband into Missouri prisons. In March 2017, corrections officer Barbara Ward was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for trying to smuggle heroin and methamphetamine into Moberly Correctional Center. Ward was released last year, according to DOC records.
But it’s unclear how the department is directly addressing the issue of staff bringing drugs into prisons. DOC officials declined multiple interview requests for this story.
In an email, DOC spokesperson Karen Pojmann said, “Keeping drugs out of prisons is definitely a challenge — especially because drugs like fentanyl are available in such small, potent doses.”
She said staff has to remain vigilant and highlighted efforts to prevent drugs from entering facilities, including regular searches for contraband, mail screening and searching visitors. But she acknowledged that contraband is still infiltrating Missouri prisons.
“We don’t have definitive data on how contraband enters prisons because sometimes we don’t discover the contraband until it already is inside,” Pojmann wrote.
Because St. Louis Public Radio was unable to interview any officials from the DOC, we turned to Gov. Mike Parson’s office, which ultimately oversees the department. Specifically, we asked how the department is handling the issue of overdoses in Missouri prisons and what its response has been.
After a three-week period, his spokesperson also declined our requests for an interview.
Missouri is not the only state grappling with illegal drugs in prison.
David Cloud, senior program associate with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, said that there’s little research on the ways drugs get inside prisons and jails — but that staff members are frequently caught with contraband across the U.S.
“I would hedge my bets that in most places, that’s probably one, if not the main route, that drugs get in,” Cloud said.
Most new hires don’t intend to sell drugs in prison, said Bill Schmutz, retired deputy warden of Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City.
But for some, smuggling contraband is a tempting way to supplement their wages.
“The low pay definitely contributes to it,” said Schmutz, who worked in corrections for more than three decades. “It makes a person more susceptible.”
Missouri corrections officers are currently the second-lowest paid in the nation, making an average of $31,650 per year, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Illinois, corrections officers make an average of $62,440 per year — roughly twice that of Missouri officers — while the average yearly salary of a corrections officer in Iowa is $50,750.
Parson approved a 3% pay increase for all state workers in June, including prison staff, effective Jan. 1. Longer-serving corrections employees will receive incremental salary increases, depending on the number of years they’ve worked in the department.
Schmutz, who now speaks on behalf of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, called this a step in the right direction — but said there’s more to this issue than money.
In 2014, the DOC lowered the hiring age for new recruits from 21 to 19. Young officers are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated by inmates, Schmutz said, comparing it to “leading sheep to the wolves.”
“We try to teach these new staff how to keep up this wall of professionalism, but inmates are constantly trying to tear down that wall and say, ‘Hey man, you’re special,’” he said. “Starts off small. You break a little rule, bring cigarettes in. Now they got the hook in you.”
DOC officials have defended the decision to hire younger recruits, pointing out that the minimum age to join the military is 17 with parental consent.
It’s unclear how Donald Hutson was able to obtain drugs inside Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. According to toxicology reports from the St. Louis County Medical Examiner, he overdosed on synthetic cannabinoids, also known as K2 or spice.
Nearly a year after his death, his daughter, Destini, is still grieving.
In her bedroom she keeps stacks of his letters — pages and pages of neat cursive with hand-drawn animals decorating the margins. The letters, along with a handful of old photographs, are all that she has left of him.
“For people to say that they see a lot of him in me, that’s hard,” said Hutson, now 25. “I never got to see that.”
Despite their long-distance relationship, Hutson said they had a strong emotional bond. They often talked on the phone and sometimes she’d sing his favorite songs, like Mario’s “Let Me Love You.”
When she had a rough day at school, Hutson said, he would listen and offer encouragement.
“It was hard growing up,” she said. “I never held anything back from him. He knew everything. He’d just tell me, ‘It’s OK, just be strong. I’ll be home soon.’”
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