Sponsors of prison nurseries proposal point to successes in other states

      Women entering Missouri prisons could have a chance to bond with their infant children while incarcerated, under a proposal that House members will be asked to consider in the session starting in a few days, but that concept is not new.  Prison nursery programs have existed in other states for years, and in some cases for decades.

      Ellisville Republican Bruce DeGroot is sponsoring one of the bills that would create a prison nursery program in Missouri, House Bill 1897.  He said as a state representative he doesn’t always have the resources to provide extensive data that can help to make a case for one of his proposals, but with this bill there is ample data on what a difference it’s made in other states.

      “Everything I’ve heard about this bill has been extremely positive, as it turned out in other states.”

      DeGroot said while he remains passionate about tort reform, which he believes protects and supports employment opportunities, this is a bill that can have an immediate impact on individual Missourians.

      “There are some bills that are just so directly related to people and their situations in life and this is one of those.”

      Springfield Republican Curtis Trent will also propose prison nursery legislation.  He says as the opening of the new session draws near he’s excited about pursuing this legislation.

      “Of course the legislative process is there to vet these ideas and make sure there are no unintended consequences, but so far the response that I’ve gotten has been very positive, very encouraging, and the data that we have from other states and the input that we have from other people in this state so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Trent.

      Illinois began its Moms and Babies program in 2007 at its Decatur Correctional Center.  Non-violent offenders are allowed to keep their babies with them until the age of two.  The Illinois Department of Public Health provides health education classes as well as lactation support and guidance.  Up to eight mothers and babies are able to live in the facility in safety and with staff support and counseling, and prison staff are trained on the needs of pregnant women and mothers.  Other incarcerated mothers are also able to help care for the children in the nursery.

      As of 2017, more than 90 women had gone through the program.  Only two had returned to prison within three years of release and only two were discharged from the program.      

      Maggie Burke was the warden at Decatur and managed the state’s women’s facilities until 2017.  She said the program has been tremendous in her state and she thinks Missouri should absolutely begin its own.

      “It’s a program that works.  It’s a program that works for moms.  Moms don’t come back to prison.”

      “There is not a ton of research on prison nurseries, but what we do know is that it does reduce the recidivism for the women who go through the program.  They are more bonded with their child and have more of a reason to stay on track when they get out.”

      Debbie Denning, who was part of the exploratory team that created Illinois’ program and was Deputy Director for the department’s Women and Family Services Division, agrees with Burke.

      “I absolutely would recommend that [Missouri] allow this program to happen, and I think that any concerns that legislators have can be addressed and really can help form the program,” said Denning.  “It’s really important not only for the culture of the facility – it makes the administration happy, it makes the employees happy, but overall it’s the best thing for the baby and the mother, and the recidivism shows that. 

      Once the bond occurs the mother is much more motivated to be successful and the administration sees a shift in that facility, and facilities are extremely dark and hard to run and a lightness comes in that you just cannot believe.”

      Burke said the programs in Illinois also take into account the unique needs of incarcerated women, who often are dealing with and need to recover from trauma.

      “A lot of the women have experienced significant trauma throughout their lives which have led them down various paths of substance use, and so a lot of them have never been a parent without some sort of substance use … what we found was that women were able to raise a baby for the first time and bond with a child for the first time without that substance use,” said Burke.

      “Part of our programming is parenting classes on learning how to be a better parent, but also part of our programming was kind of day care classes so that they would learn how you would take care of a child in day care.  You would log when you changed a diaper, what kind of diaper it was that you changed, how much you fed them, how much they ate, what kind of food, what kind of drink, and how much naptime they took.  You become better in tune with your child so when they come home they are better prepared to have more children if they do, just to be a better parent, a more attentive parent.”

      Denning said in Illinois there were those who were skeptical about creating a nursery program, and she was proud to watch their attitudes change once it was in place.

      “I had one sergeant … who was just awful about, ‘Why would we bring babies in prison,’ and ‘These women don’t deserve their children,’ and I put him on the committee.  We had him, within six months on our committee, he was the first one that I had to say, ‘You can’t bring things in for the babies,’ because he was bringing in clothing and different things.  It was just a complete turnaround.” 

Denning continued, “I think that with anybody, when you see that nurturing environment and you see that these women bond with their children … when they started to begin to understand that our job wasn’t to punish, but really to rehabilitate and set this person up to be a parent, to feel that bond with their child, and then to go out and be able to be self-sufficient and not relying on the system.  Once we were able to connect those dots, they were all over being positive about the program.”

      Burke said the program benefits not only the women and children who participate, but the rest of the prison.

      “The culture of the facility kind of changes.  I don’t know if you’ve been into very many prisons but there’s just kind of a feeling when you go into the prison and most facilities don’t feel like a facility that has a bunch of babies in it.”

Among other states that have a prison nursery program is Nebraska, where, as of 2018, there had been a 28-percent reduction in recidivism within 3 years of a participant’s initial offense and a 39-percent reduction in participants returning to prison custody.  From 1994 to 2012, Nebraska’s program saved that state more than $6-million.

      Both Trent and DeGroot say they have talked to the Missouri Department of Corrections and the office of Governor Mike Parson (R) and received positive responses to this idea. 

      The 2022 legislative session begins January 5.

‘Prison nurseries’ proposal would let incarcerated mothers bond with newborns in prison

      Women in Missouri prisons might not have to be separated from their newborns under a bill being considered for the legislative session that begins in January.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The plan would allow some women who are pregnant when they are about to be incarcerated for short sentences to have their babies with them in prison so that they can bond with their newborns.  The idea is being referred to as the establishment of “prison nurseries.”

      Missouri Appleseed is an organization helping drive the effort.  Director Liza Weiss said some other states already have such programs, and some of those have been in place for years.

      “These programs last for a variety of times from three months to three years,” said Weiss.  She said women who have release dates falling within the given length of time and meet regulations set by the Department of Corrections, “would be able to participate in this program and live with their child, with their baby, in a separate area of the prison and care for the baby and bond with the baby, and then leave prison together with the baby, and be able to be a parent to the child.” 

      Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) will sponsor one version of the proposal.  He thinks it’s simply good government.

      “I think that once that bond forms, when these women get out they’re naturally going to want to take care of that baby and start doing the right things with their lives, and that’s why I’m so excited about this bill,” said DeGroot.

      Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield) plans to sponsor similar legislation.  He said the results seen in other states are encouraging.

      “Women and children do better, both in terms of mental health, the bonding of the child to the mother.  There’s also some indication that recidivism rates are lower in the long run, and of course there’s savings to the taxpayer as well.  If you take the child from the mother and put it into the foster system that’s a very expensive process.”  

      “Research on the development of the child has been very positive as well,” said Weiss.  “We realize this would be a change for the Department of Corrections, but we do think it would really be a win-win for the women and the babies.”

The Department told House Communications that right now when a woman in a Missouri state prison gives birth, that baby goes into foster care or with a family member. 

Representative Curtis Trent (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Currently, pregnant women are housed at the prison in Vandalia.  As of early October, 23 had delivered babies.  In 2016, that number reached 73, but decreased to 49 in 2019 and 31 last year.  The Department notes that in the last 4 years Missouri’s population of incarcerated women has dropped by 42 percent.

      Representatives DeGroot and Trent are still developing draft language for their bills, and DeGroot said the Department of Corrections is involved.  He expects to propose that the program be available to women whose sentences are for up to 18 months. 

      “The [woman has] to be a model prisoner.  She has to either have a high school degree or equivalent, or [be] working on that while in prison.  And, they have to remain a model prisoner, and they have to engage in pre- and post-natal classes so they learn how to take care of that baby.”

      DeGroot said he also views this as a “pro-life bill.”

      “I don’t know how many women who are scheduled to go to prison would actually consider aborting that baby before they got there, but I think this provides an incentive and peace of mind knowing that you’re going to be able to keep that baby and get that mother-baby bond while you’re still incarcerated … we’ve given some real hope, if this bill would get enacted,” said DeGroot.

      Not only is it anticipated the idea would save the state money, Weiss said she thinks it could be entirely supported by outside donations and grants. 

      “Missouri Appleseed has already been approached by several charities and foundations who’ve said this is something they’d be very excited about to support,” said Weiss.  “And part of the draft language from Representative DeGroot’s bill does create a fund in which grants from foundations and donations can be accepted by the state, too, to fund and sustain the nursery.”

      Legislators can begin pre-filing legislation on December 1, for the session that begins in January.

Pronunciations:

DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)

Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]

Feminine hygiene products now free to all women incarcerated in Missouri

      Women incarcerated in Missouri prisons and jails will now have access to feminine hygiene products free of charge, under legislation that became law in July.

Representative Bruce Degroot (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Senate Bill 53, signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R) on July 14, included language that requires city and county jails to join the state’s prisons in providing those products to female inmates at no cost.  Many facilities had already been doing this.  The new law codifies that practice and extends it to those facilities that weren’t. 

      Research in 2018 showed that in Missouri’s two female prisons, more than 80 percent of women were making their own hygiene products, and those they were given for free were ineffectual.  These homemade products were often resulting in infections or other complications.

      The same language found in SB 53 was also sponsored by Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) in his House Bill 318.  DeGroot said the measure was a way to provide dignity to incarcerated women, while saving the state money.

      “These women were receiving additional medical treatment at the cost of the Missouri taxpayer when they did fashion their own products in order to save money,” said DeGroot.

      The proposal had broad bipartisan support.  One of its most vocal advocates was Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis)

      “What the research has shown is that if you don’t provide people with adequate products, they end up with poorer mental health outcomes and also with infections that can be really quite costly for the government since we’re responsible for healthcare when people are incarcerated,” said McCreery.

      Representatives McCreery and DeGroot both worked with an organization called Missouri Appleseed regarding the issue.  Appleseed is a nonprofit based in St. Louis.  Founding Director Liza Weiss said women in Missouri prisons were having to choose between things like buying adequate hygiene products, or talking to their children on the phone.

Representative Tracy McCreery (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “Women in Missouri prisons who have a GED, they make approximately $8.50 a month, and before this bill passed tampons were being sold in the canteen; a pack of 20 was like $5.36,” said Weiss.  “We’ve heard so many stories … that often times women would be turning down visits with an attorney or even with their family members because they were so ashamed that they weren’t able to take care of their menstrual cycle … they were worried about being embarrassed.”

      McCreery said part of what was so encouraging about this legislation was its bipartisan nature.

      “A lot of Missourians and even a lot of elected officials are really tired of the hyper-partisanship, and this was one of those issues where people from both sides of the aisle and also males and females came together to make this change happen, and I think that we need to do more of that,” said McCreery.

      The fiscal year 2022 budget also includes $240,000 to pay for providing those products to women in county and city jails and detention centers.

Pronunciations:

DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)

Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]

House proposes a chance at parole for certain inmates over 65 serving life

The House has voted to ensure that Missouri inmates who are at least 65 years old get a chance at parole.

Representative Tom Hannegan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 352 would apply to a small number of inmates who have served at least 30 years of a sentence, who have no prior violent felony convictions, are not convicted sex offenders, and are serving a sentence of life without parole with a 50-year minimum.

St. Charles Republican Tom Hannegan sponsors the bill.  He said that sentence was replaced with a 30-year minimum in the 1980s.

“We are trying to give these folks, who have become elderly in prison and are a burden on the Missouri department of justice health system, the same opportunity for parole that they would’ve had if they had committed their crimes a few years after they were convicted,” said Hannegan.

Democrats strongly supported the bill.  Representative Barbara Washington (D-Kansas City) said just as modern DNA has proven some people innocent in old cases, this legislation reflects how the state’s law has changed to eliminate overly harsh prison terms.

“This is an opportunity to correct some of the miscarriage of justice that we’ve had in the past,” said Washington.

Some Republicans opposed the bill, saying the victims of the crimes committed by the inmates this bill would affect deserve justice by having the original sentences carried out.

Carl Junction representative Bob Bromley (R) said a high school friend of his was murdered, as was the sister of a friend of his.  He reached out to relatives of both of those victims about HB 352.

“They are adamantly opposed to this because they believe we are re-litigating what has already been litigated in the past.  They believe that they have a written contract with the judicial system and also with the State of Missouri that these people were going to be put away for life,” said Bromley.

Former Joplin Police Chief Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) said sentences of life without parole are often offered as an alternative to the death sentence in particularly egregious crimes.  That is generally after the victim’s family has agreed to accept that as an outcome.

“When someone is sentenced under a statute that says, ‘Life without parole means a 50-year minimum,’ that’s the promise that we made to the family at the time,” said Roberts.  “The promise doesn’t change just because our philosophy changes.”

“Whenever we take today’s philosophy and apply it to yesterday’s conduct, somehow the victims fade into the landscape like they never existed,” said Roberts.

Hannegan said the bill wouldn’t fly in the face of past sentences.

“The [legislature] has already made the change in the sentencing law.  Therefore this is not breaking a contract with the jury, but rather allowing equivalent sentencing across the board,” said Hannegan.

Representative Lane Roberts (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Steve Butz’s (D-St. Louis) sister was raped and murdered about 10 years ago in Washington State.  He described to his colleagues having to identify her body, having to wait several days before her body was released to be buried, and going through the court trial.

He said her killer is serving the same kind of sentence as the people this bill would affect.

“Our family, consistent with our [belief that] ‘every life is important,’ we requested that this perpetrator not be given the death penalty, and he was not.  My mother, my father, and all 10 of the surviving siblings testified to that case,” said Butz.

He said forgiveness is key for a family to heal.

“With all the other requirements that this inmate in this case would have to meet, it’s for those reasons that I urge the body to support this bill,” said Butz.  “It’s great to be merciful.”

HB 352 is part of a larger, overall focus on criminal justice reform that is a bipartisan priority this year.  Its language has been included in a broad reform package, House Committee Bill 2.  That bill is still before a House committee.

An inmate receiving a parole hearing under this bill must be found by the parole board to have met certain criteria to be eligible for parole.  He or she must have a record of good conduct while in prison; must have demonstrated rehabilitation; must have an institutional risk factor score of no more than one and a mental health score of no more than three; and must have a workable parole plan that includes the support of family and community.

An offender who is not granted parole would be reconsidered every two years.

With a vote of 90-60, HB 352 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

Legislature’s budget proposal would boost employee pay and benefits, study pay by job class

State employees would receive a pay raise beginning January 1 under the budget the legislature proposed last week, and their health care benefits would also be bolstered.

The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Kip Kendrick (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The legislature approved a budget that would increase by $700 the pay of employees making less than $70,000 a year.  Those making more than $70,000 would receive a 1-percent increase.

It would also pump $61-million into the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan – the insurance program for most state workers.  Budget makers say MCHCP was close to depleting its reserve funds, and they hope that the infusion of money in this budget will stave off premium increases for state employees.

“I don’t think there’s enough discussion in the state right now on the condition of Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan,” said Columbia representative Kip Kendrick, the leading Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  “Any new funding that we could do for them this year – I’m glad we could get to $61-million in new decision item funding for Missouri Consolidated – it’ll help offset that.  I suspect there will be plan changes and premium increases, but it will help us at least keep those costs somewhat contained.”

The budget also includes an additional $350-per year increase in pay for prison guards.  House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said lawmakers have heard that the Department of Corrections has had increasing difficulty in hiring and retaining guards, and that is in part due to the offered salary not being great enough.

Fitzpatrick and Kendrick agreed that while there are employees throughout the state to whom they would like to give greater pay increases, corrections officers’ pay needed immediate attention.

“The raise we agreed to specifically for corrections officers combined with the raise for all state employees amounts to over a $1000 increase, which for some of these corrections officers who are making in the high 20s, low 30s per year I think is significant,” said Fitzpatrick.  “That, by itself, probably isn’t going to be a game-changer but hopefully it’ll help reduce turnover and help us with the issue we have with the vacancies in that area.”

$3.2-million would go to increase pay for public defenders.  Kendrick said the average public defender starting out is making $39,000 a year.

“Typically having a new law degree and an average debt of over $100,000, $39,000 does not go nearly far enough.  We needed to do what we could make sure we increased pay for public defenders to somewhat balance the justice system again,” said Kendrick.  “Nothing against prosecutors – prosecutors are great.  They tend to be paid much better than public defenders and when you have that it kind of tilts the balance even more so in the direction of the prosecutors.”

Kendrick said bolstering the state’s public defenders could save the state money by slowing the growth of its prison population.

The budget also includes a $6.3-million boost in pay for the state’s Highway Patrol troopers.

Fitzpatrick said perhaps more significant for state employees than the pay and benefits increases in this budget could be funding for a reward for performance study requested by the Office of Administration.

“We’re going to give them the opportunity to go out and really study all the job classes in the state – what we’re asking people to do and trying to compare and find out what the market rate is on that, so that we can get a real good sense of what job classes we really need to focus on,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I think we have some job classes in the state that are probably overpaid, I think we probably have some that are severely underpaid, and some that are probably right about where they need to be.”

Fitzpatrick said with the information from that study the legislature could begin, even next year, working to get Missouri out of last place among all states in employee pay.

The legislature’s budget lays out more than $28.3-billion in proposed spending of state-controlled money.  It was approved on Wednesday, two days ahead of the constitutional deadline, and will next be sent to the governor.

Legislature’s budget could help counties save money on holding state prisoners

The budget passed by the Missouri legislature this week aims to get the state caught up in payments to counties for holding state prisoners, and to give counties cheaper options for taking care of those prisoners.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The budget includes more than $34-million to reimburse county jails that hold inmates on state charges until they are transferred into state custody.  Missouri statute calls for the state to reimburse each county $22.58 per day for every state inmate that county holds in its jail.  Missouri is about 6-months behind in those reimbursements according to House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob).

Out of that $34-million, counties can spend up to $5-million in state funds on alternative methods for tracking inmates – methods including ankle monitors or a smartphone app for monitoring of prisoners.

“There’s talk of, for super-low-risk offenders, potentially letting them out with an app on their phone – basically they’ll have to check in with facial recognition requirements and they have to check in however many times a day the court wants them to check in from their home,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick.  “It’s a riskier method but it’s also much less expensive and if we feel like somebody’s not a risk of fleeing or something like that, it’d be a low-cost option.”

“This is a chance for the state and the counties to save money up front, and hopefully start catching up with the reimbursements we owe the counties and keep costs down going forward,” said Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles), the Chair of the budget subcommittee that deals with the Departments of Public Safety and Corrections.

“[The state only releases] $10-million per quarter [in county reimbursements], so if [a county gets] the money that’s fine, then you have  to wait for the n ext quarter to start getting reimbursed again.  There are a lot of counties out there that just can’t afford to do that,” said Conway.  “This $5-million also gives other counties the opportunity to use this GPS tracker system if they wish … if they can use this electronic tracking system for the cost of what one day [of holding a state prisoner] would be, they’re actually going to catch up with their arrears a lot sooner.”

Conway has also been working for several years to develop a similar program that will be launching as a pilot in Audrain, Montgomery, and Warren Counties.  It will use a bracelet similar to those people wear to track the number of steps they take each day, popularly known as a “FitBit.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“It worked with [a smart phone app], and rather than the $12.50 a day that it costs for the ankle bracelet, this was around $15 to $20 a month.  People could be out on probation and every three minutes this would send a ping for GPS and the probation and parole officer would always know their location, could send them notification of court dates and different payments that were due,” said Conway.  “[We] set up a pilot program where it could be pre-conviction as well, and I think the significance of that is most of the cost for county jails to hold prisoners for the state came before the conviction.”

Counties could utilize that $5-million for any “alternative jail sanctions,” as these prisoner tracking options are being called, that don’t cost more than $12.50 per day.  If not all of the $5-million is utilized, it will roll back into the money used to reimburse counties.

The legislature voted to approve its budget proposal on Wednesday, two days ahead of its constitutional deadline.

State Representative’s review finds $36-million of potential savings in Department of Revenue

A state House representative says his review of the Department of Revenue uncovered ways the state could save up to $36-million dollars.

Representative David Gregory (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis Republican David Gregory presented to the House Budget Committee what he called a, “Fiscal Opportunity Audit” of the Department.  He explained that he spent 160 hours over several months studying the department, meeting with its staff, and comparing it to counterparts in other states.  He said he found a number of ways the state could save money or generate revenue.

At least one of his findings has come up in other reviews of Missouri tax policy including Governor Eric Greitens’ (R) tax cut plan, and that concerns the state’s business sales tax discount.  Missouri businesses that remit to the state in a timely manner the sales tax they collect get a 2-percent discount.  Gregory said of neighboring states three have no such discount and four cap how much money businesses can retain.  Missouri’s discount is the second highest among all states.

“Let’s say we wanted to implement an arbitrary cap.  We still wanted to be the most business-friendly, we wanted to be the most generous in our area, we can implement a cap of $3000 a month.  That would save $52.7-million a year in state taxes,” said Gregory.

Gregory said he also found that capping the state’s withholding tax discount – a discount that among the states is unique to Missouri – the state could save up to $13-million a year.

As for revenue generation, Gregory said for the Department to hire three more people to investigate notices of auto sales could generate more than $3-million a year.  Hiring two more people to investigate the paying of sales taxes on vehicle purchases might result in $700,000 a year more revenue.

Gregory also looked at what the Department is spending on supplies and that led him to Missouri Vocational Enterprises.  People incarcerated in state prisons work for MVE making products including furniture, clothing, notepads, and a variety of other products.  All state agencies are required by law to purchase any product they need from MVE if it’s made there.

Gregory said when he looked into one specific product, a chair purchased from MVE by the Department, he found that, “the exact same chairs sell online at Office Depot for $150.  Our Department of Revenue paid almost $400 a chair.  That’s too much.  That’s way too much,” said Gregory.  “I like the MVE.  I love the program.  I think it’s a great idea and we’re going to work with them, but paying $400 – requiring a $400 spend on chairs is absolutely ridiculous.”

Overall Gregory said the Department spent $4.2-million a year with MVE.

“If we could get the MVE to commercial rates of one-third of what it is … even if we could just do a 50-percent cut … that’s $2.1-million a year in savings,” said Gregory, who said he’s been talking to MVE’s director and believes changes to that agency’s pricing can be implemented.

In looking at size, Gregory found that Indiana’s Department of Revenue covers about half-a-million more residents over about the same land size with 822 employees compared to 1,145 in Missouri’s Department.  Gregory said he has identified 283 employees he believes the Department could cut without falling behind in its operations.

Gregory emphasized to the committee that his findings were just that; not recommendations or proposals.  The budget subcommittee that deals with the Department will consider whether to explore them further or act upon them.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick said the Department will be given time to react, “As opposed to us doing it through the budget right now and maybe forcing the changes to occur too fast.”

“What happens now is I want to see to it that we implement and execute on those observations if the budget committee and the General Assembly agrees with me,” said Gregory.  “A lot of them aren’t things you can just do overnight, so generally like I said in my presentation, my recommendation’s going to be that we work with management over a course of 12, 18, 24 months and see what we can do together to execute.”

Gregory said any changes the Department does experience could take years and some could require legislation.  At some point he hopes to see a similar review done with other state agencies.

House panel recommends changes in Missouri Corrections to fight harassment, bullying, and favoritism

The state House is recommending the Department of Corrections make several policy changes to battle sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation, and favoritism among its employees.

Representative Jim Hansen (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jim Hansen (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

Read the subcommittee report by clicking here.

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 of them have.  Not all of them,” said Hansen.  “She’s also looked at the training and her approach to training new leaders.  She’s got some ideas in the works there.”

Hansen expresses a lot of confidence in Precythe to improve the environment in Corrections.

“It’s in the bottom of the first [inning] or to top of the second – however you want to look at it – but so far she’s made a lot of the right moves,” said Hansen.  “There’s a lot of good employees out there and we’re asking them to be part of the solution and not the problem, to help her, and with time I think that she’ll get the changes done that need to be done.”

Hansen hopes House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) will keep the subcommittee active so that it can follow-up on the Department.

“We want to have the director come and report to us on a quarterly basis and give us updates, so I don’t see any reason to disband this committee,” said Hansen.

Other recommendations included standardizing policies and procedures across all institutions except with department director’s approval, and increasing the minimum age of employment from 18 to 21.

Hansen thanked the members of the subcommittee and said each of them took seriously the task of hearing what was going on in the Corrections Department and recommending changes.

Some earlier stories:

Number 2 Corrections official faces committee investigating sexual harassment, retaliation in department

House votes to require monthly reporting on settlements in cases against Missouri

Panel on Corrections Department environment hears of ‘vague’ harassment policies, working in ‘hell’

Subcommittee on harassment in Corrections Department frustrated by Department’s structure, process

New prison system director talks to House committee about harassment, more

Number 2 Corrections official faces committee investigating sexual harassment, retaliation in department

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 Director of Adult Institutions in the Missouri Department of Corrections.  After more than 40 years with the Department, he will retire April 1, amid allegations his department's culture was rife with sexual harassment and retaliation against those who complained.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Dave Dormire is the Director of Adult Institutions in the Missouri Department of Corrections. After more than 40 years with the Department, he will retire April 1, amid allegations his department’s culture was rife with sexual harassment and retaliation against those who complained. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“I’ll blame the culture a little bit.  As you know, correction officer is a tough job,” Dormire said.  “We train them specifically to continue to watch and address behaviors.  Then they become supervisors, and that’s the behavior they’ve learned – to address behaviors.  They’re not well trained – I acknowledge that – not well trained on being a good supervisor.”

Representatives Bruce Franks, Junior (left), and John McCaherty (right) (photo, Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representatives Bruce Franks, Junior (left), and John McCaherty (right) (photo, Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Dormire told subcommittee member John McCaherty (R-High Ridge) the Department has not tolerated its employees committing harassment or unprofessional behavior repeatedly.

“I know that’s your feeling, but we do tolerate it,” McCaherty responded.  “It’s going on in the Department, it’s going on now, and that’s why we have a committee because we’ve been tolerating it, so I know your hope is that we don’t tolerate it but as a department we do tolerate it.”

“I understand your opinion, sir.  Obviously when I have my records to show what we’ve done and how we’ve addressed things,” Dormire said.

“And we have court cases to show the other side of it,” said McCaherty.

Dormire said the Corrections Department has grown to eight times the size it was when he started there, to more than 32-thousand inmates and roughly 8,000 staff throughout the prison system.

“That’s created all kinds of bureaucracy and things like that, and management issues.  I’m not here to make excuses but other departments have not faced that type of growth,” said Dormire.

Subcommittee members told Dormire it has been reviewing reports of harassment and retaliation that date back as much as 20 years.

“It looked like our employees would’ve been better off behind bars,” said Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Frankford)“They would’ve been safer there than they would from some of their supervisors, and it’s disturbing.”

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.

Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kathie Conway (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles), who said she has heard of, “so much nepotism,” in the department, challenged Dormire on that claim.

“We have to use the Merit system,” said Dormire.

“You have to not sexually harass people, too, but that didn’t seem to be the case,” said Conway.

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.

Asked specifically whether he testified that disciplining two guards accused of harassing two nurses would have been “moot” because the nurses had quit, Dormire said, “I don’t remember making that statement in particular.  I don’t normally use that word.  It’s possible.  I don’t remember that.”

Committee members again indicated they are looking to those at or near the top of the Corrections Department’s hierarchy – wardens and administrative officials – as being largely at fault.

Hansen said of the cases of harassment he’s read about wardens seemed to be involved in some, and “totally incompetent,” in others.

“I think you’ve got good wardens,” Dormire told Hansen.  “Some of them need some help.”

“They need help?  We don’t have time.  This is costing the state taxpayers millions of dollars,” Hansen responded.  “We got people who are supposed to be head of the parade that are playing out of tune and out of step with the marching band.”

Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis City) said he feels the committee still isn’t being told who it must talk to, to get to the nucleus of issues in the Department.

“We talked about the culture, we passed the buck today two or three times, we said we can blame the culture, we can blame the growth, we can blame all of these different things, except for blaming ourselves – the people who are actually in charge,” said Franks.  “We have a lot of people up top who aren’t held accountable and who aren’t holding those right up under them accountable, who make 90-thousand, 50-thousand, 100-thousand, 85-thousand, so maybe we need to take about seven or eight of these particular jobs out and distribute their salaries to those who are making nothing to do most of the work.”

Panel on Corrections Department environment hears of ‘vague’ harassment policies, working in ‘hell’

A week after being frustrated by two Department of Corrections officials’ responses to questions about harassment, members of a Missouri House subcommittee heard from two Department employees who described an environment of nepotism, harassment, and retaliation in the state’s prison system.

Members of the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct listen to testimony (file). (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Members of the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct listen to testimony (file). (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) said he wants to hear from more Department employees before the committee prepares its recommendations for changes in Corrections.

Other related stories:

Bill seeks better oversight of state settlements, after harassment in Corrections Department

Subcommittee on harassment in Corrections Department frustrated by Department’s structure, process

New prison system director talks to House committee about harassment, more

MO House subcommittee will investigate harassment in Corrections Department