A House subcommittee appointed to investigate harassment and retaliation in the Department of Corrections thinks how the Department handles allegations is not clear, at best.
The Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct was formed in response to an article on Pitch.com that detailed incidents within the department that in some cases led to lawsuits, costing the state millions of dollars.
The subcommittee took testimony from the department’s Inspector General, Amy Roderick, and the Division of Human Services Director, Cari Collins. Representatives asked questions about who handles harassment allegations and who makes decisions about any disciplinary actions that might be the result of those allegations. They weren’t satisfied with what they heard, with members calling the Department’s administrative structure “confusing.”
“It appears to be a shell game to me in terms of where it goes, where it doesn’t go, who has a say in when it goes,” said subcommittee chairman Jim Hansen (R-Frankford).
Collins told the committee staff in her division deals with reports of harassment, and she was not aware of any complaints about how harassment had been handled.
“I don’t know of any examples where it wasn’t taken care of,” said Collins. “Whenever anything is reported to us, we investigate it. What is done with that investigation is not determined by human resources.”
She said decisions about discipline of most prison employees, including terminations, falls on the Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, Dave Dormire, who answers to the Department Director.
Collins told the committee changes have been made in the past five years in her division’s procedures and its number of staff members that conduct investigations. She said some changes also followed meetings involving legal counsel, about the number of harassment complaints and resulting settlements.
“We increased the number of ways that an employee can report allegations, the number of people they can report it to, we also expanded the definition of what needed to be reported,” said Collins. “We added unprofessional conduct because for a supervisor or even a CAO, we don’t want them trying to figure if something might be discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. If it’s unprofessional we want them to send it up. HR will look at it and make that determination … that’s one of the reasons the number of reports have increased, because we’ve expanded the definition of what needs to come to us.”
Roderick told the committee her office does not handle harassment, but would investigate anything with a criminal component to it such as assaults. The committee asked her if she was familiar with an incident described in the Pitch.com article in which an employee who had complained about harassment was allegedly poisoned when she returned to work. Roderick said she had read the article, but had no knowledge of the incident.
Roderick said it would have been up to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), more commonly called the warden, of an institution whether to notify her office of such an incident.
“So she could be poisoned on the grounds of the institution and there’s a warden out there that didn’t think that needed to go up the chain,” said Representative John McCaherty.
“It could happen,” Roderick told the committee.
The Department’s structure frustrated many of the lawmakers on the committee.
“We have an investigative body that’s technically not allowed to investigate everything,” said Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis City), referring to the poisoning case not being referred for investigation by the warden at the institution where it took place. “I don’t like to speculate but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the only case. And so the checks and balances, they aren’t there.”
Franks expressed frustration at what the two Department officials explained about how allegations are handled, and passed among different parts of the Department’s organization.
“We bring two directors here, or two professionals here … but it really seems like it’s just passing the buck, or saying, ‘Oh well, we don’t do this. This person does this,’ and I just want to get the person in here who we need to be talking to,” said Franks. “It seems like we just need to cut a bunch of positions and provide more compensation for our correctional officers.”
“The objective of this board is to get to the bottom of it and help,” Franks added. “At the end of the day we just want it to be better, especially for our employees.”
Hansen said one of the subcommittee’s goals is to learn about how the Department is structured. After that hearing he expects one of the subcommittee’s recommendations will be that Corrections’ process of handling all types of complaints be streamlined.
The subcommittee is expected to hold its next hearing Thursday morning.