Missouri’s new Department of Corrections leader addressed a legislative committee Thursday. DOC Director Anne Precythe was named in December by Governor Greitens to replace George Lombardi, who was dogged by reports of abuse as well as sexual and verbal harassment among prison employees.
In recent years, worker complaints were routinely ignored, and those which escalated to a high level were muzzled by big dollar payouts from the state.
The Pitch newspaper documented cases between 2012-2016 where those who spoke out received settlement payments and judgments totaling almost $7.6 million from the state, in exchange for keeping quiet.
During the first six months of 2016, the DOC was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims harassed because of sex, religion or disability. As a result of the scandal, Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) announced he would form a committee to investigate the allegations.
Precythe spoke in front of that panel, the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct Thursday, where she emphasized that moving forward, there will be zero tolerance for reporting harassment and retaliation, and zero tolerance for responding to complaints. She said there are practices she will introduce to fix the problem.
“Holding staff accountable, training and education, helping then understand what professionalism in the workplace looks like, and then holding them accountable for that” said Precythe. “Those are the things that are going to help us make a change.”
Republican House member Jim Hansen of Frankford chairs the committee Precythe appeared before. He was impressed that she stressed the need to address employee morale and job promotion as well as zero tolerance.
“I thinks of you could even fix all three of those, you’re going to take the state a long ways from the employees standpoint who’ll be working in the corrections department.”
The Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green is located in Hansen’s district. He noted all the members of the five person committee looking into the DOC scandal have prisons in their districts.
In her address to the lawmakers, Precythe said she wants to move the agency beyond its traditional function of overseeing “custody and control” of inmates.
She plans to have corrections officers engage with prisoners more closely to identify those who are acting out, and to be role models for inmate behavior. She says staffing levels will need to be boosted to achieve such goals.
“If we’re going to ask our corrections officers to do more than just control and custody, they’re going to have to have more time to spend engaging with the offender population.”
Precythe isn’t sure how the personnel needs will be addressed, but thinks more state money will be needed to expand the role of corrections officers.
When asked if low wages are an issue in suppressing employee motivation, she said increasing pay is important, but not the driving force in improving morale.
“I think that folks want to be valued” said Precythe. “They want to be taken seriously. They want to be appreciated. They want to be recognized. They want to be acknowledged for the good things.”
Precythe says an improved work environment will help employees, and will also set a better example for inmates who’ll be coming back into communities.
Committee member Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis) brought up inmate treatment as an issue he had first-hand knowledge of. He said problems in the corrections system’s healthcare, which is run by Corizon Systems, has resulted in numerous inmate deaths. Franks said his uncle, who was misdiagnosed while incarcerated in Missouri, died shortly after being released.
Democratic House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty, also a harsh critic of the DOC scandal, attended the committee meeting.