A Missouri House subcommittee met nine times over the course of three month to study acute problems plaguing the state’s prison system.
The panel’s goal was to come up with solutions to eliminate the culture of harassment, violence and retaliation which has devastated the Department of Corrections. The state has paid out more than $10 million in five years to settle lawsuits with the department.
Recommendations from the panel, known as the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Culture, were released this week.
A list of nine bullet points compiled by committee chairman Jim Hansen, R-Hannibal, included measures championed by new Corrections Department Director Anne Precythe. One was to implement a zero tolerance policy and a 24-hour hotline that goes directly to the Office of Professional Standards.
Representative Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, was instrumental in changing the title Inspector General to Office of Professional Standards. “Just the name itself switches it from an adversarial situation to one where we are seeking excellence” said Conway.
At the beginning, Conway wants lawmakers to be informed about every incident reported through the 24-hour hotline to ensure the department is following through in addressing employee complaints.
Another recommendation from the committee is to create new recruiting and hiring procedures for supervisors, and institute mandatory training. Over the course of the nine hearings, a common thread among the current and former prison workers who testified was a complaint that supervisors were unskilled and ill-informed.
Conway thinks it should be a priority for employees who get promoted to get proper training. “It’s kind of like being a soldier, and being a colonel. Completely different jobs. And I think too many of the people that got promoted never had management training, people skills, that kind of thing.”
Committee chairman Hanson thinks the prisons should have a pool of people identified in advance to be candidates for promotion. “You start working with them, even before you have the opening come up” said Hansen. “If they’re willing to enter a pre-training pool, you have a selection pool to pick from.”
Many of the bullet point recommendations dealt with the promotion process. One calls for a probationary period to ensure candidates are fully qualified before being promoted. Another creates a selection process for wardens, while still one more requires in-depth management and leadership training for wardens.
Many employees who testified blamed wardens for allowing egregious behavior to spread through their prisons.
Representative Bruce Franks Bruce Franks Jr., D-St. Louis, who sat on the committee, thinks the prison issues start with the wardens. He says more wardens should have been called in to speak before the panel, and says he’s going seek out some of them for questioning.
“It needs to happen” said Franks. “And it’s not just to meet them to drag them through the mud. It’s to ask questions just like we asked everybody else, and get some answers. We need to hear it from the source.”
Committee chairman Hansen sees a problem in that individual prisons have policies that often differ from department guidelines because wardens tend to establish their own standard operating procedures (SOP).
“My recommendation is that if a warden establishes an SOP in his prison that’s outside of the policy and procedure book, he has to have approval of the director of the department(Precythe)” said Hansen
Conway thinks it’ll be important for Director Precythe to be directly engaged with all the wardens.
She sees the 24-hour hotline as an important tool in making sure problems at the prison level are reported to management at the top level.
“These kinds of things operate in secrecy, darkness and intimidation. And once you get rid of those three things, it can’t help but improve. The bad actors are going to be found out.”
At least one former employee is not impressed with the committee’s recommendations. John Griggs didn’t testify before the panel because he was involved in a multi-car accident just before he was scheduled to appear. He said all the recommendations were already part of the Department of Correction’s policies, save for the hotline.
“I would want to see the different corrupt leadership that allowed all this stuff to go on be questioned, and some terminations being handed down, but absolutely none of that happened.”