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Missouri prison warden replaced after inmate death investigation

The Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Missouri Department of Corrections
via Facebook
The Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Othel Moore died at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in December while restrained and in isolation. Four corrections officers were fired in March for their actions related to his death.

The warden of Jefferson City Correctional Center, where four corrections officers were fired earlier this year following the investigation of a December death of an inmate, has been replaced.

An acting warden has taken over for Doris Falkenrath, Karen Pojmann, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said in an email to The Independent. Falkenrath is no longer with the department, Pojmann wrote.

“I’m not able to comment on the nature of or reasons for Warden Falkenrath’s separation from the department,” she wrote.

Falkenrath worked for the department since 1999 and previously held the position of warden at the Fulton Reception and Diagnostic Center. Her last day was Thursday, Pojmann wrote.

Othel Moore was 38 and being held in the Jefferson City Correctional Center when he died on the morning of Dec. 8. Prison activists at the time described a painful death where his pleas for help were ignored after he was placed in administrative confinement.

The department launched an internal investigation, with a parallel inquiry conducted by the Cole County Sheriff’s Department. The four correctional officers were fired in March because of their conduct at the time of Moore’s death but the department did not release any details about the terminations.

Those investigations have been completed, said Andrew M. Stroth of Action Injury Law Group, one of the attorneys representing Moore’s family. He has not received all the reports, he said.

“Under (Falkenrath’s) command, Othel Moore was unjustifiably killed,” Stroth said. “We also believe that the officers that were terminated are responsible for the tragic and unjustified death of Otto Moore.”

According to accounts provided by Stroth and others, Moore was pepper sprayed, his head was covered with a hood and he was placed in restraints. He could be heard screaming that he could not breathe and inmates described seeing blood coming from his mouth and ears as he was removed from the cell.

The family has not received the surveillance video it has demanded from the department nor has it received a full autopsy report on his death, Stroth said.

“The family is grateful that the warden has been terminated, that the officers involved have been terminated and we look forward to advancing their case in the courts,” Stroth said.

Activists tracking deaths in Missouri prisons have been increasingly trying to raise the alarm as deaths increase at the same time prison populations have declined.

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 period 2020 through 2022, with an average of 23,409 incarcerated people in state prisons, deaths averaged 122 per year.

The numbers continue to increase, said Lori Curry of Missouri Prison Reform. She said Monday that her figures show 135 deaths in custody during 2023, up from 125 in 2024.

Deaths attributed to accidental causes – including drug overdoses – have been a major factor driving the increase.

So far this year, she said, there have been 66 deaths reported in Missouri prisons through May 31, a rate that would result in more than 150 deaths by the end of the year.

“I’m glad there has been some accountability in this situation,” Curry said. “You know, there were some other employees that were fired that were more directly involved in the situation. However, there are still employees that I believe were involved or should have some accountability.”

Getting information about individual deaths in custody has been extremely difficult, even for family members of the deceased. Willa Hynes of St. Louis won a case in April where the Western District Court of Appeals found the department violated the Sunshine Law when it asserted that records of the death of her son, Jahi Hynes, in 2021 were inmate medical records protected from disclosure.

Jahi Hynes was 27 when he hanged himself with a bedsheet in an isolation cell.

“We find there was substantial evidence from which the trial court could have found the DOC acted with the intent to achieve some purpose by violating the Sunshine Law, namely, to hinder Hynes from pursuing a potential civil claim against the DOC relating to her son’s death,” Judge Edward Ardini wrote.

Willa Hynes has a wrongful death lawsuit against the department pending in Mississippi County, the location of the Southeast Missouri Correctional Center.

Moore, who had been in prison for almost 19 years at the time of his death, was serving a 30-year sentence for second-degree domestic assault, possession of a controlled substance, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.

Moore’s family hasn’t filed a lawsuit yet but it is coming, Stroth said.

“It’s three law firms and a whole team of lawyers that are representing the Moore family, to pursue justice for this family,” he said.

The courts can’t be the only way to implement changes in the department, Curry said. The corrections agency needs to take further actions to show it is serious about putting an end to unnatural deaths among people in custody, she said.

“I don’t see accountability across the board in this situation,” Curry said.

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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