The Director of the Missouri Department of Corrections says she’s made massive personnel changes in management and staff at the agency.
Director Anne Precythe spoke before a legislative committee last Thursday, where she noted 75% of senior management in her office has changed, while 80% of leadership at the division that manages the state’s 21 correctional centers had been replaced. She also said 17 prisons have had some form of change at the top, including 11 prisons that are being headed by new wardens.
Precythe replaced Director George Lombardi in February 2017 after a newspaper story revealed a prison culture of harassment, intimidation and retaliation that resulted in at least $7.5 million in lawsuit settlements being paid out by the state over a four-year period.
Before the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct, Precythe said she spent most 2017 focused on staff.
“We believe an organization changes when the people change,” said Precythe. “It has been a real push from my office, my executive team, and our senior level managers to really begin to pay attention to what it is staff are saying, what it is they need, and then what can we do as management to be better.”
The Director, who came to Missouri from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, says part of her plan to improve the culture is to work on leadership interaction with staff members.
At the committee hearing Precythe said all 2,047 supervisors across the entire Corrections Department will receive a block of training that’ll involve follow-up sessions in interval of 30, 60, 90 and possibly 120 days.
The subcommittee itself released a set of recommendations after holding numerous hearing last year where it heard-first hand about serious problems within the prison system from former and current employees.
Among its suggestions were the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy, a 24-hour hotline to report problems, a clearly defined chain of command for employees to file a complaint and the creation of the Office of Professional Standards.
A lot of attention at the committee hearing was focused on the role wardens play in the culture of their prisons. Precythe said an effort is being made get wardens out of their comfort zone of being the sole person who administers discipline.
“We’re trying to get wardens out into the units, talking with their staff – the deputy wardens, the assistant warden, the major,” Precythe said. “We’re putting a plan in place so that they become a very visible part of that facility.”
Democratic committee member Bruce Franks of St. Louis lobbied unsuccessfully last year to have wardens appear before the committee. At Thursday’s hearing, he said he wants the wardens to address nagging cultural problems within the prison system.
“One of the concerns I still have is I still have employees who have quit in our Department of Corrections, who fell that there is still nepotism, and some of these other issues, especially when it comes to discipline.”
Franks said he’s pleased with progress made under Director Precythe, especially at the St. Louis Release Center, a troubled half-way house for ex-offenders where a man committed suicide in 2017.
Matt Briesacher, the Director of the newly created Office of Professional Standards, also spoke at the committee hearing. He said his office, which follows up on complaints about conduct, has seen a dramatic improvement in wardens engaging in the process.
“Almost at a majority now, when we reach out to that employee who made the complaint, we’re hearing from them ‘My matter has already been addressed’,” said Briesacher. “So, our wardens have stepped up. We’ve worked with them on not being a pass-through on these issues.”
Another issue brought up in the hearing as a possible roadblock to improved job performance is the merit system employed by the Department of Corrections for hiring and promoting employees.
Republican committee member Tim Remole of Excello thinks the system leads workers to become disillusioned with their jobs. “We’ve lost some fantastic employees because of that merit system in my local area,” said Remole.
A number of employees and ex-employees who spoke at the committee’s hearings last year said much of the morale problems at state prisons can be traced to abuse of the merit system.
Still another source of disenchantment for prison staff brought up at the hearing was wages. Missouri has the lowest paid state employees in the country.
Republican committee Chairman Jim Hansen of Frankfort thinks boosting staff wages should be a priority. “That to me is one of our biggest issues in the Department of Corrections,” said Hansen. “Plus, we have too many people in prison.”
In his budget, Governor Greitens has proposed boosting the pay of every state employee earning $50,000 or less by $650 a year. In the hearing, Director Precythe noted all but 211 of the Department of Correction’s 11,232 employees would be eligible for the wage increase if the governor’s plan were to be enacted.
Chairman Hansen said the committee will bring in more employees during the current legislative session as it continues to track workplace conditions within the prison system.
The chairman also hinted during the committee hearing that he didn’t necessarily believe all the personnel problems in the prison system had been adequately addressed. He noted he’s still receiving complaints about bad behavior.
“I shouldn’t be getting this many emails,” said Hansen. “Just because I chair this committee, I don’t run the department of corrections.”