The new leaders of the Missouri Department of Corrections say they’re working to shake off the negative image due to numerous lawsuits filed in the last five years by current and former corrections officers, who alleged widespread harassment, intimidation and retaliation.
Gov. Eric Greitens made a brief call to reform the agency after he took office and brought in a new director, Anne Precythe. And last month, a House subcommittee released a list of recommendations to address the agency’s issues. But some corrections officers say things won’t change until some of the current supervisors and high-ranking officers are fired.
Missouri’s corrections officers work in a high-stress environment, where there’s a risk of violence from some inmates. What some of them didn’t expect was to face violence and intimidation at the hands of their supervisors and co-workers.
Calls for reform and the creation of the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct followed on the heels of an article published in November by the Kansas City online publication The Pitch, which described a long-existing hostile work environment.
Since 2012, more than $7.5 million dollars have been paid out in settlements and judgments in at least 60 lawsuits — including more than $3 million during the first half of 2016. That money is paid out of the state’s legal defense fund, which is part of Missouri’s annual state budget.
But more than 30 lawsuits, including that of Frederick Richardson, a former corrections officer at the Tipton prison, haven’t been heard yet.
He’s suing for wrongful termination and harassment, saying that he was hired shortly after getting a medical discharge from the military, accused by a supervisor of giving improper notice over taking prescription drugs at work, harassed by coworkers and superiors and later fired.
“(It’s) almost like a mafia, it’s the same families that run the prisons,” he said. “You’re talking about small communities, real small communities, where the prisons are at — they’re a family helping their family (members) get hired, and then helping their family get promoted.”
He said nothing will change until the cliques running the prisons are broken up.
“You’d have to make a committee right outside of the whole DOC, that has nothing to do with DOC...and let them go in,” he said. “If something’s going on, let them investigate it and let them decide what’s going to happen.”
The list of recommendations made by the House subcommittee include:
Implementing a zero tolerance policy and a 24-hour hotline that goes directly to the Office of Professional Standards;
- Requiring yearly sexual harassment training;
- Requiring random employee drug testing;
- Ensuring those guilty of misconduct are terminated, prosecuted, or responded to in a way that fits the offense;
- Creating new recruiting and hiring procedures for supervisors, and instituting mandatory training;
- Implementing a probationary period for new hires, and ensuring candidates are fully qualified before being promoted;
- Creating a new selection process for wardens, as well as an annual review by the department director.
The management and leadership training for wardens, supervisors and other leadership positions. Isn’t not happening, according to Alexas White, a corrections officer at the Southeast Correctional Center near Charleston in the Bootheel region.
“I think supervisors need to be held accountable and be put through further training,” she said. “When they do not do what is required by policy, there should be a policy set forth for their failure to be a supervisor.”
White had a romantic relationship with her supervisor, to whom she’s now married. She acknowledged that she didn’t give proper notice of the relationship when it was made public by a co-worker. The two were disciplined: She was suspended five days without pay and he was demoted and transferred to another facility.
She also said the discipline was unfair because she is black and her husband is white. She said other supervisors are getting away with the relationships, which shows there’s a good-ole-boy system at work.
“Multiple people have significant others and/or spouses that work in the DOC, and at the institutions that they work at,” White said. “Depending on who you’re friends with, or what race you are, or your interaction with supervisory staff that are in those cliques, you will get away with other things that other people will not.”
Precythe took over as Missouri’s Corrections Director earlier this year, coming from North Carolina’s prison system, which she ran from March 2013 to December 2016. She said her new team is working to get rid of the department’s “bad actors.
“It’s just going to take a little while for us to identify who those people are, and then they have the decision to make,” she said. “Do they want to come along with how we’re doing business today? If they (do), great, (and) if they don’t, they’ll be held accountable.”
But she also downplayed the image painted by plaintiffs.
“The majority of our staff is excellent, hard working, full of integrity and pride for the job that they do … the majority of people are onboard for the right reason,” she said.
Precythe acknowledges that many of the recommendations were already in place before she arrived. But she’s implemented a new one: creating a Professional Standards office that’s reviewing every complaint made by employees.
"We have a very specific process about how to handle sexual harassment, workplace retaliation, workplace violence claims, and then we’re reviewing those investigations,” she said. “My new director for Adult Institutions, Alana Boyles, along with staff, they’re taking an independent look at them as well.”
Precythe said she also wants to improve the agency by raising employee salaries and cutting the cost of managing inmates. That second part may be easier than the first, considering the state’s budget crunch is unlikely to give corrections workers a salary boost anytime soon.
The department did get a $35.5 million increase in the state budget that takes effect next month, but only because the Inmate Canteen Fund, which normally isn’t included in the DOC’s budget numbers, now is.
Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport