House budget plan aims to improve harassment investigations in Department of Corrections

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 (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“She’s making significant changes to the Department,” said Fitzpatrick.  “The Department of Corrections has an inspector general, currently, which I think has been doing a sub-par job, and that’s what I’ve gotten from the director.”

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.

“In the hearings it appeared to me like there was a lot of confusion concerning who’s doing what when it comes to [human resources] and the investigators handling the cases, of who’s handling what, who knows what’s going on.  The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” said Hansen.  “I think it needs to be streamlined … there needs to be adjustment made and a review of everybody’s responsibility, and maybe be able to put this under one silo on who’s going to handle it and who’s reporting to who, and how fast it can get to the top.”

Fitzpatrick’s spending plan would reallocate within the Department’s budget more than $2.3-million to create the new office.

“We’ve created that in its own section in the budget, and [Director Precythe’s] plan is to use that to try to build more trust in the institution of the Department of Corrections, and to better deal with the personnel issues that they’ve been having, that have been creating these large claims,” said Fitzpatrick.

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Ann Precythe (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Missouri Department of Corrections Director Ann Precythe (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“It’ll make sure that we can still pay claims and judgments against the state, but it’ll also put some skin in the game from the departments’ perspective so that the effects of their actions aren’t something that they don’t feel,” said Fitzpatrick.

The House continues work this week on a budget proposal to send to the Senate.  Once the House and Senate agree on a spending plan it must still go to Governor Eric Greitens (R).

MO House subcommittee will investigate harassment in Corrections Department

A Missouri House subcommittee that will investigate reports of harassment within the Department of Corrections has been formed.

Representative Jim Hansen will chair a House subcommittee that will investigate reports of employee-on-employee harassment within the Department of Corrections. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jim Hansen will chair a House subcommittee that will investigate reports of employee-on-employee harassment within the Department of Corrections. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

An article on 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.

Earlier story:  Missouri House to investigate reports of harassment within Department of Corrections

The new House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct will be chaired by Frankford Republican Jim Hansen.

“It’s a challenge but I hope we can come out on the other side with some answers, some solutions, so this does not happen in the future,” said Hansen.    

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.

“From what I’ve looked into, some of my information, I think we still have people employed in our Corrections Department, in our system, that are still employed after a lot of these things have happened, and those are people that we need to interview,” said Hansen.  “I think it’s good that we’ve got a new director.  Clean slate, no opinions one way or another, a background in corrections.  Could be good timing, too.”

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.

“We need to create the work environment to attract the good employee with the right compensation for the type of job that needs to be done,” said Hansen.  “You can’t brush everybody with the same brush in this deal.  I don’t want people out there working in our institutions thinking they all fall under the category of some of the things we’re dealing with.  There’s good people in there doing good work.”

Hansen’s district includes the state prison at Bowling Green.  Prior to the Pitch article he had been looking into unrelated complaints at the Corrections Department.

The committee will prepare recommendations for House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff).