The Secret Missouri Investigations of Inmate Deaths

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If a Missouri inmate won’t comply with verbal commands, the “goon squad” –a special team of corrections officers informally named for its grim responsibilities and intimidating uniforms—rushes in.

In an account of the operations of the squad, which dresses in black jumpsuits, helmets and tactical gloves, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes how  one officer pins the inmate down with a large shield while four other officers have a specific arm or leg to grab and help hogtie him. Missouri’s prison system relies on such teams to help extract inmates from cells and maintain control.

A 2011 extraction ended in disaster when Michael King, a 25-year-old inmate in the administrative segregation unit, died. Nearly the whole incident, as well as the follow-up, happened away from the public eye.

See also: Prison Story: When ‘Extraction Squad’ Comes for You

At a time when the Missouri Department of Corrections has been under fire for issues ranging from its parole board toying with inmates to paying out millions of dollars in damages to female corrections officers who alleged they were harassed by co-workers, the Post-Dispatch took a look at how death in the prison system is investigated.

Not only is the agency responsible for the care and treatment of some of the state’s most mentally troubled residents, the corrections department often polices itself by handling inmate deaths internally. The release of information is tightly controlled. No video. Even the warden’s name can be blacked out of documents.

About 100 people die in prison each year, mainly of natural causes. The paper observes that the investigations of prison deaths can also be frustrating for families. Many such investigations are inconclusive.

“It’s a secret world,” Jim Bruce, a civil rights attorney in southeast Missouri, said of dealing with the corrections department. “Only the people who are in charge have control of the records.”

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