Workers at the Missouri Department of Corrections say the agency suffers from a culture of the “good old boy” system.
The department’s been plagued with allegations of egregious behavior that have been muzzled through threats, intimidation, and at times, payoffs.
A legislative committee investigating the issue has heard from many current and former employers who’ve been subjected to retaliation from co-workers and higher ranking personnel.
A number of people testifying have said much of the problem can be traced to the agency’s merit system for hiring and promoting, claiming it’s been abused.
James Gober, who works at the Farmington Correctional Center, spoke to the committee (House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct) Thursday. After the hearing, he told Missourinet he thinks it’ll be practically impossible to change the corrosive conditions employees are submerged in.
“The system is so broken, I don’t think there’s enough energy and money to fix it” said Gober. “That takes time. That takes a lot of time.”
Gober is a major, a position just below warden in the corrections system. He chaired committees’ set-up within his prison to choose employees for promotion.
He says all too often the rationale for advancement is tied to subjective criteria, such as whether it’s an employee’s turn for promotion, or whether he or she is good for morale.
When asked by committee chair Jim Hansen (R-Hannibal), Gober admitted he’d personally been disciplined three times over a 26 years career at the Corrections Department. He’s currently on a paid leave of absence for an expletive laden outburst in a meeting he supervised.
Gober said a major contributing factor to the abominable behavior of prison employee is the lack of discipline throughout the system. “There’s no discipline. And the discipline we receive is weak, or it takes so long to get it, it’s of little consequence.”
Committee member John McCaherty (R-High Ridge) thinks the problem stems from rules within the prison system not being enforced. “We’ve got policies in place” said McCaherty. “We’ve had policies in place within the department all along under multiple directors. We’ve had policies that solved these issues in multiple ways and they just simply weren’t followed.”
McCaherty thinks policies need to be followed through the chain of command beginning at the top. He said he’s hopeful new DOC Director Anne Precythe will make needed changes not implemented by previous Director George Lombardi.
Committee member Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis) thinks the problem can be linked to prison wardens who play favorites with lower level employees.
“When you have to report something, and you end up going to the warden, and the warden is the one who actually has to take care of it, what if that warden is involved in some way, shape or form” said Franks. “That doesn’t give you guys (employees) confidence about actually reporting, nor anything being done about whatever the situation is.”
While testifying before the committee, retired corrections officer James Miller suggested that relocating wardens could help alleviate poor morale and retaliation among corrections personnel. “The Missouri State Highway Patrol rotates their officers in districts every three-years” said Miller. “Why not rotate the wardens in the institutions every three-years. It reduces the opportunity of them gaining absolute power over everybody. And it would give everybody a fair shake.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) was instrumental in forming the committee looking into the Corrections Department. He said anything is on the table, including subpoenaing department personnel, to get to the root cause of problems at the agency.
“The kind of activity that has occurred, and the kind of activity that’s been alleged is completely unacceptable” said Richardson. “It should be unacceptable anywhere. It certainly should be unacceptable in a state agency.”
The committee plans more hearings after a week-long break in the legislative session.