A Missouri House panel heard revealing testimony from prison employees about a Department of Corrections (DOC) scandal Thursday after high ranking agency administrators were evasive a week earlier.
Widespread cases of worker abuse, intimidation and retaliation, some of which resulted in high dollar lawsuit settlements from the state, were outed late last year in a story by The Pitch newspaper.
Testimony from two current employees backed up claims of egregious behavior. Travis Case, who runs a canteen at the Northeastern Correctional Center in Bowling Green described a system that breeds corruption, where the wardens have the keys to the kingdom.
He mentioned an instance in which a warden ignored the recommendation of a three person panel and hired the person of his choosing.
“That Warden can go to that person who was hired and say, ‘Hey look what I did for you’” said Case. “And we know what that kind of a system breeds. It breeds nothing good. The only thing that it does is say, ‘Hey I owe him. I’m going to stand by that guy. I’m going to be loyal to him, no matter what.”
Case said vague policies that are often disregarded creates the culture of favoritism where people in good standing with supervisors are promoted while those who aren’t are ridiculed and stepped on.
He described a personal experience where petty retaliation endangered a co-workers safety and forced policy to be broken.
As the canteen manager, he made a special request for tobacco from the central business office in Jefferson City after shelves ran dry before a holiday weekend. When the business manager at the Bowling Green prison learned of the special order, he allowed for a van to be dispatched to make the pick-up.
But according to Case, as a show of power, the manager required that a person below Case make the drive in the van to Jefferson City. The woman charged with the errand had never driven a large vehicle, but was forced to sign a release stating she had experience with such deliveries. Case said the woman was fearful making the journey.
“That’s one little daily thing that happens when you try to expose something, and it’s not to their liking” said Case. “They put obstacles in your way when you’re trying to do your job.”
Case said the evasive testimony by two administrators the previous week before the committee was typical behavior for a person in a position of power. He said anyone at the highest level within the prison system would know about accusations of employee abuse and intimidation.
Lieutenant Jason Horn, dressed in his uniform with a white shirt and badge, also testified Thursday. He works the evening shift at the Farmington Correctional Center.
He offered mostly solutions during his testimony, but said the problem starts with a culture of apathy throughout the department, particularly at the top.
He said many tenured corrections officers (CO’s) feel like they’re overlooked and underappreciated.
Among other things, Horn suggested (CO) overtime shifts should be shortened from eight to four hours, age requirement for employment should be raised from 19 to 21, fatigue outreach should be enhanced and a well-defined chain of command should be established.
He said all claims of abuse, harassment and retaliation should be sent to the agency’s Human Resources Department. Horn also said changes to the tenure and insurance structure would boost morale, while a more effective disciplinary process would help weed out unproductive employees.
In following the previous week’s testimony from the administrators, Horn noted he was hearing “a whole lot of passing the buck”, which he said was happening on the institutional level as well.
Case, from the Northeastern center, summed up the issue by repeating what a warden told one of his disgruntled co-workers.
“He said “More than policy, more than anything else, you haven’t learned that loyalty is our number one priority’. And I pretty much thought, that says it all. It tells you how the institution is being run. And a system like that will not last.”
Case said the Northeastern Correctional Center had an 80 percent turnover in staff because of dysfunctional work conditions.
Following the hearing, Republican Committee member Kathie Conway of St. Charles said she thinks high ranking personnel at the DOC are still trying to obstruct the investigation. “I think that what our two witnesses talked about, passing the buck, I think its plausible deniability going on all over the place.”
Conway emphasized she was not placing new DOC Director Anne Precythe in that category in a tweet to Missourinet.
A third person scheduled to testify, former employee Jon Griggs, did not appear after being involved in a multi-vehicle accident Wednesday in St. Louis.