The “primary focus” for the incoming Director of the Department of Corrections is dealing with reports of harassment and retaliation within the department. That’s what Ann Precythe said after talking to a House subcommittee created to review those reports.
A news article citing court documents said some Corrections employees had been the victims of harassment by other employees. Some were retaliated against after reporting incidents, and some cases led to lawsuits that have resulted in millions of dollars of legal settlements by the state, with more pending.
Precythe spoke to the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct about her plans for the department. After her presentation she told reporters there is a “phenomenal framework” in place for dealing with custody and control and prison operations.
“My focus is really getting to staff treatment, employee morale; the things that make a difference that don’t cost the taxpayers a dime to work on. Those are the things that I am focusing on right now. That’s my number one priority,” said Precythe. “It’s a new day in Corrections. It’s a new administration and we’re getting ready to move forward with a new culture for corrections.”
Precythe previously served as the Director of Community Corrections in North Carolina before being appointed in Missouri by Governor Eric Greitens (R). She told the committee North Carolina’s corrections system had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding harassment.
“In North Carolina we have the words, ‘zero tolerance,’ written in our policy and they were capitalized and they were bold,” said Precythe. “I think that’s important that I establish a zero tolerance for reporting when sexual harassment, workplace harassment, or retaliation has occurred, and then I think it’s important to have a zero tolerance for responding to those complaints when they’re alleged.”
“The zero tolerance does not necessarily mean everybody gets put on administrative leave or subsequently gets fired, but it means that we’re going to take all complaints seriously and we’re going to look into them,” Precythe told lawmakers.
Precythe said she is still gathering information about what has happened in the department. She told the committee, “I don’t have the answers for certainty about what’s not working or why, but I do know what can work and how to implement it.”
She said that means focusing on holding staff accountable, training and education, and making sure staff understands what professionalism in the workplace looks like.
Missouri’s entry-level corrections officers are the lowest paid in the nation. Some have asked whether that could contribute to harassment issues, by lessening morale and making the keeping of the best employees more difficult.
Precythe said she thinks the pay should be considered, “but I don’t believe that that’s the driving force. I think that folks want to be valued. They want to be taken seriously. They want to be appreciated. They want to be recognized. They want to be acknowledged for the good things … this is about a good working environment for all employees regardless of the business that you’re in, and that’s what I’m bringing back to Missouri.”
The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford), said he was pleased with Precythe’s plans for a zero tolerance policy, and to focus on employee promotion and morale.
As for the committee’s work, he said he it has a long way to go.
He said the subcommittee’s next hearing could be as early as next week.