A House committee charged with investigating the Missouri prison scandal heard testimony from Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe Thursday.
The recently appointed department head offered a series of programs she’s initiated to eliminate the culture of harassment, violence and retaliation which has devastated the agency.
One plan introduced by Precythe offer three pathways for employees to register a complaint – the chain of command, the regional human resources officer, and a hotline.
“There’s no more wardens making a decision ‘Should I report this up or not’” said Precythe. “And I know that was one of the largest concerns that had been had.”
Precythe was appointed by Governor Greitens to clean up the troubled prison system, which was the target of employee lawsuits resulting in more than $7 million in settlements.
She says there’s now a clearly defined chain of command for employees to file a complaint, and a follow-up system through the recently created Office of Professional Standards.
“If an employee files a complaint through the chain of command, the employees will know at some point they should get a call from the Office of Professional Standards. If they don’t get a call, then we know that somehow the complaint hasn’t gotten to where it needed to go.”
Precythe says the Office of Professional Standards, which was launched in March, brings clarity to the way investigations are assigned. All complaints are sent to the office, and all hotline calls go directly to it without any third party in between.
Another change Precythe reported to the committee was the swap out of the Inspector General’s office with a Civil Rights Unit, which will respond to allegations of sexual harassment, retaliation and unprofessional conduct.
The Civil Right Unit will also build up the PREA Unit (Prison Rape Elimination Act) which will investigate sexual related incidents.
Precythe also told the committee there’s a plan to more closely coordinate with local officials about crimes committed in prisons. She said local prison officials would meet on a regular basis with law enforcement personnel and prosecutors.
One hint that there’s been insufficient communication inside the prison system came when Precythe announced to the committee that she’d held a first ever meeting of all the leaders within the department. It included wardens along with management from both the central office in Jefferson City and the Probation and Parole division.
Committee member John McCaherty (R-High Ridge) expressed hope that Presythe’s overhaul of the system would help low level employees who have most often been the victims of the rampant harassment and abuse.
“They feel like they need to watch their back from the inmates, their fellow corrections officers and their management” said McCaherty. “Hopefully we get some structure there that they can at least feel comfortable that somebody’s not out for them on both sides.”
After the hearing, Precythe told Missourinet that her task at the Department of Corrections has been the biggest professional hurdle she’s faced. “This has been one of the best challenges in my career. It’s been huge, but I am very excited to take it on.”
Precythe came to Missouri’s prison system after a career in probation and parole at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. She established a zero tolerance policy since taking over at the state DOC.