A Missouri House committee investigating the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) scandal heard more details of egregious behavior and employee abuse Thursday.
After hearing from close to 20 witnesses over several months, including current and former department workers, panel members are zeroing in on the root causes of the mammoth problem.
Corrections Officers Association Director Gary Gross, who testified before the panel, thinks it’s the prison wardens who allow bad conduct to permeate the system without consequences.
“In these cases they just simply, basically reuse to take any form of action against the aggressor or the perpetrator, or the person that was causing the issue” said Gross. “The department, as long as I’ve been around it, has always been reluctant to take action against supervisors. That starts at, probably the lieutenant level on up. Regardless of the issue, somehow they twist it to where it’s the employees fault.”
House Democrat Bruce Franks Jr. of St. Louis, who sits on the committee, emphatically places blame on the wardens.
“We’ve got to get these wardens in here. We’ve got to get these wardens in here and talk to them, and see what they’ve got to say” said Franks. “And when all fingers point one way, no matter what language you look at, one-plus-one is two. It’s about time we put them in front of us and see what they’ve got to say.”
The committee’s chairman, Republican Jim Hansen of Frankford, seems content to let DOC leadership make judgements regarding wardens.
He says he’s hesitant to bring them before the committee, claiming new DOC Director Anne Precythe is already evaluating them. He notes some wardens plan to retire or have already done so.
Hansen does tag officials higher up the food chain when assigning blame for the scandal, namely outgoing second-in-command Dava Dormire.
“That’s probably the biggest one of all in terms of the material that we have” Hansen said. “He’s had a long career and he’s decided to retire.”
Dormire, the agency’s director of adult institutions is stepping down April 1st. Hansen said others inside the chain of command at Corrections could also be singled out in the committee’s investigation.
Gross thinks former agency director George Lombardi played a big role in covering up the department’s corrosive culture.
“If the legislature calls George Lombardi and says ‘Gary Gross is over here saying this’, then he’s going to tell you that I’m just a disgruntled individual coming over here trying to cause trouble for the department…And that’s exactly why I wasn’t over here jumping up and down and screaming and hollering about this stuff. Because I knew all he was going to do was turn around and black ball me.”
Gross went on to tell the committee that many of the problems unmasked in the prison system, including lawsuits which have cost the state millions to settle, could have been avoided if agency policies had been enforced on supervisors.
“The department’s got the policies in place to do what needs to be done” said Gross. “But they’ve always had the approach that those policies were just for certain people. They did not include the supervisory staff in the department.”
Among the other issues mentioned by Gross and the three other current and former employees who testified before the committee, were low pay and excessive overtime hours.
All four people who spoke to the panel said the current hiring age for corrections officers, which is 19, is too low and needs to be raised to 21. The threshold was lowered to help compensate for staffing shortages.
Committee chairman Hansen said there could be one, maybe two more hearings before the panel makes recommendations. He said he’d like to have new DOC Director Anne Precythe testify at its last hearing.