Missouri state Rep. Jim Hansen will long recall one female prison worker who reported that working conditions inside her facility were so horrific that she lost weight and resorted to sedatives.
She was intimidated. She was harassed. She was passed over for deserved promotions. Work, Hansen said, became her own personal hell.
“It was like she was suffering from PTSD,” Hansen said of the mental health problem often linked to front-line soldiers.
Hansen, a Republican from Frankford, spent much of the last few months appalled — his word — at what he learned about conditions inside Missouri’s prison system. Among the other failings identified were racial discrimination, retaliation for filing complaints and a good-ol’-boy system that fostered an ugly environment.
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The good news: The committee just released a solid set of reforms aimed at reversing this perverted culture that has led to the state paying out millions of dollars in settlements and legal judgments.
Those recommendations include an essential zero-tolerance policy, annual sexual harassment training, new discipline guidelines, creation of a 24-hour hotline and random drug screening for employees.
Only briefly mentioned in the report is a recommendation for higher pay for experienced workers that would boost the department’s dangerously low morale and help instill more professional conduct. As things stand now, Missouri corrections officers are among the nation’s lowest paid.
Missouri’s new corrections chief, Anne Precythe, who took over the troubled department a few months ago after Gov. Eric Greitens forced out the former director, already has implemented several of these reforms. She also created an Office of Professional Standards aimed at making sure that internal investigations “are completed efficiently, fairly and timely.”
All this amounts to a solid start.
But it’s also true that many of these recommendations were already included in Department of Corrections policy. The challenge will be for department leaders to ensure that the policies are actually implemented. That responsibility falls on Precythe’s shoulders. But it also falls on Greitens, who must follow through. This is now his problem.
The Department of Corrections’ depraved culture has festered over many years. Hansen likened improving it to “turning an aircraft carrier around.”
Why? Consider the department’s size. The agency employs more than 11,000 people at more than 90 locations. Tens of thousands of prisoners are supervised.
That’s a lot of area to cover for a department that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.
There’s another issue here, and it’s one that state Auditor Nicole Galloway should examine. Several members of Hansen’s committee complained that the legal settlements involving the department and its employees were kept secret and never revealed to the General Assembly.
“I was totally blindsided,” said Rep. Kathie Conway, a St. Charles Republican. That lack of transparency helped cover up the glaring problems inside the department.
Fortunately, Attorney General Josh Hawley is now releasing monthly reports that outline settlements and judgments against the state.
Meantime, Hansen wants to keep his committee active so that it can follow up if more problems arise. That’s smart.
Make no mistake: The Department of Corrections is broken. And it must be fixed. The state owes its employees no less.