The state House is recommending the Department of Corrections make several policy changes to battle sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation, and favoritism among its employees.
After news articles last fall brought such issues to light, as well as millions of dollars in settlements with the state by former Corrections employees who had been victims, the House formed a subcommittee to investigate the work environment in the Department.
Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) chaired that subcommittee. He and other members heard what they called “disturbing” reports of harassment and treatment of employees over the last few months, as current and former Corrections employees offered testimony.
Hansen said some of the subcommittee’s key recommendations are the implementation of a zero tolerance policy toward harassment; a change in how complaints are handled; the creation of a hotline for taking employee complaints with a mandated 24-hour response to calls; and a review of how employees are promoted and trained.
Hansen said some of those recommendations have already been implemented under the Department’s new director, Anne Precythe.
Some Republicans spoke in opposition to the amendment, but most representatives who chose to speak on it were supportive. It did not come to a vote. Engler withdrew it saying he wanted to have the debate, but he believed its passage would result in the failure of the bill it would have been attached to, and because many representatives would have voted against it using their support of the underlying bill as an excuse to vote no.
He asked Republican leadership to bring the issue back next year, which will be his last in the legislature due to term limits.
“In the Senate … if you did the full boat and you served your 16-years [in the legislature] it was a tradition to let you at least debate a bill of your choice on the floor. Mister Speaker I hope that you would honor that next year, and the bill that I’m going to ask for is this bill. I would like it debated on the floor on its own merits and I would like it voted on.”
Another, similar amendment was voted down after Engler and other supporters of the underlying bill said the amendment’s passage would cause the bill to fail.
The latest version of the House’s proposed budget would restructure the Department of Corrections, in light of how it handled cases of harassment and retaliation against employees.
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said his plan would redirect money that goes to the Department’s offices of Inspector General and Human Resources, and create an Office of Professional Standards.
Fitzpatrick said he worked with Corrections Director Anne Precythe in developing his proposal.
The House in January announced the creation of the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after a news article revealed the Department had settled numerous lawsuits filed by former employees who had been harassed. Those settlements were costing the state millions of dollars.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford), said the committee came to a similar conclusion about the job that the inspector general had been doing.
Precythe did not speak to House Communications for this story, but the Department did supply a memo from her dated March 14. In that, she said the Office of Professional Standards will be made up of the Civil Rights Unit (formerly Human Resources), the Employee Conduct Unit (formerly the office of Inspector General), and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Unit.
She said new processes would “begin soon” and, “we are still fine tuning the remaining details,” but said, “We are changing our investigative processes to allow institutions to handle most offender-related incidents. This change allows us to reallocate resources into the Civil Rights Unit. The Civil Rights Unit will conduct investigations into allegations of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and unprofessional conduct. With additional resources, the Human Relations Officers will be able to conduct and complete investigations even faster than they do now.”
“In addition, Human Relations Officers will soon be conducting training statewide for all employees and will be doing additional outreach and follow up with employees who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, retaliation or unprofessional conduct. More Human Relations Officers also means more opportunities for them to visit institutions and offices throughout the state and interact with employees outside of the investigative process.”
Precythe explained the Employee Conduct Unit would investigate employee violations of procedure, unexpected offender deaths, suicides, and potential homicides. Those investigations would be assisted by law enforcement in certain cases.
Fitzpatrick’s budget also removes the “E” found on many lines in the budget. Those Es represents an open-ended spending limit on funds in which legislators expect money beyond what they allocate might be needed before the next budget is created. One such E was found on the budget line from which comes money for settlements the state must pay.
Fitzpatrick and others have said it is because that line had an “E” that legislators were unaware for years of the settlements involving the Department, and the harassment and retaliation issues that caused them. By removing the E, agencies must now come to the legislature and explain why they would need additional money for court settlements. That could shed light on recurring problems such as the Corrections Department had.
Fitzpatrick said he also proposes putting an appropriation for legal expenses in the budget of each state agency, whereas before the money for settlements across all agencies came from one line.
A top Department of Corrections official has told a House subcommittee poor training, bureaucracy, and the Department’s growth have contributed to problems with harassment and retaliation among Missouri prison employees.
Dave Dormire is the Department’s Director of Adult Institutions and has been in the Department more than 40 years. He has announced he will retire April 1.
He talked to the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after it had heard testimony from several other department officials, employees, and former employees.
The subcommittee was formed after news articles shed light on cases in which Department employees alleged they’d been harassed and, in some cases, retaliated against. Several of those cases have gone to court, and several of those resulted in settlements costing the state millions of dollars.
Since September, 2011, Dormire has been responsible for some staff appointments, overseeing the safety of staff and inmates, and for disciplinary decisions.
Dormire was asked why some of the people who had been involved in those incidents still work for the Department. He told lawmakers some allegations go unsustained, and some efforts are made to correct employees rather than fire them after a first incident.
Committee members also asked Dormire about reports they’ve heard of nepotism in the Department’s hiring and promotion practices. At an earlier hearing, they heard from a former employee that wardens often ignore the recommendations of panels assigned to recommend employees for promotion. The system was described as one of “good ol’boys” hiring and promoting friends and relatives.
Dormire told lawmakers the Department used the state’s Merit system, created in state law to prevent favoritism, political influence, or arbitrary decisions in hiring and other employment decisions.
Committee members asked Dormire about allegations raised by recent articles by Pitch.com suggesting that he had been involved in retaliation against employees, and had been deceptive in his answers in some investigations. Dormire denied those allegations.
Travis Case, who is three years away from retiring from the Department, told lawmakers, “You come in every day and the negativity, it’s like you’re walking into hell.”
Case works in the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, in its canteen – a store where inmates can purchase items including snacks, drinks, and tobacco products.
He told legislators that prison has seen a high rate of turnover with many veteran staff members leaving – an issue he believes likely exists department-wide. He said morale is low and complained that he believed prison wardens have too much power.
“This came out of a deputy warden’s mouth and I agree with him wholeheartedly,” said Case. “’We give these wardens the keys to the kingdom and we let them run it however they see fit, and that’s a big problem.’”
Case was talking to a panel formed to look into the environment in the Corrections system after reports came to light of employee-on-employee harassment and retaliation against those who reported problems. Some cases resulted in lawsuits, some of which the state has settled resulting in millions of dollars in payouts. Other cases are still pending.
Case said the Department’s policies, including its policy regarding harassment, are too vague.
“Missouri supposedly has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and discrimination, but the policies don’t reflect that. The policies are so vague that if you want to fire somebody for sexual harassment or discrimination or retaliation – whatever the case may be – you can do it if you want to, but if you don’t want to you also don’t have to,” said Case. “That’s where the favoritism comes in.”
The subcommittee also heard from Lieutenant Jason Horn, a corrections officer at the Farmington Correctional Center. Horn read off a litany of suggestions for improvements in the Department, including its handling of harassment.
“Send all claims of … discrimination, harassment, retaliation, to Human Resources. There should not be a choice. No passing the buck,” Horn recommended. “If we can have somebody with a nonbiased opinion come in and look at these problems and these issues in a way that they need to be looked at with no choice – with no choice of the warden or anyone else, then I think things would get dealt with a little more appropriately than they do.”
Subcommittee members expressed gratitude at the two men for coming to testify. After its previous hearing one panel member said it seemed as though department officials were, “passing the buck,” shuffling harassment claims back and forth between departments. Members expressed frustration at the answers they received from the Department’s Inspector General and its Division of Human Resources Director.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Missouri House subcommittee that will investigate reports of harassment within the Department of Corrections has been formed.
An article on Pitch.com outlined multiple cases in which, it said, court documents showed some Corrections employees were the victims of harassment by other employees. Some were retaliated against after reporting incidents. Some cases led to lawsuits that have cost Missouri millions of dollars in legal settlements, with more pending.
He said the committee’s greatest focus will be on the Department’s procedures and how it follows up on complaints.
“I have taken several complaints to different levels of the Corrections Department and always got an answer but it was always in favor of the Department, basically. I’m not saying it was wrong or right,” said Hansen. “I think we just need to review who are making these decisions when it comes to policy, when it comes to harassment, when it comes to workplace environment.”
The House’s investigation comes as the administration of new Governor, Eric Greitens, is taking over from the administration of former Governor Jay Nixon. Hansen says that means some of the people who bore responsibility for continued harassment, or who had knowledge of it, could have already left the Department or be on the way out.
Hansen said the committees’ recommendations could include actions against employees connected to the harassment, if its members feel that is necessary. Hansen said supervisors of those employees could also be called in front of the committee.
Entry-level corrections officers in Missouri are paid less than their counterparts in any other state. Hansen said that makes it more difficult to keep the best people. That could also be reflected in to the committee’s investigation and recommendations.