Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson announced Wednesday the formation of a special investigatory committee to examine allegations of harassment within the state Department of Corrections.
The department has come under increasing scrutiny after a November report in The Pitch detailing harassment and discrimination lawsuits in which prison employees alleged they suffered retaliation for speaking out against the mistreatment.
Just last year, two discrimination lawsuits against the Department of Corrections resulted in juries ordering the state to pay more than $3 million in damages to the victims.
Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, had promised to investigate the situation when lawmakers returned for the 2017 session. On Wednesday, he announced that Republican Rep. Jim Hansen of Pike County will lead the new investigatory panel.
“The harassment that has been uncovered within the department is completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated,” Richardson said in a prepared statement.
Richardson said Hansen already has been in talks with corrections employees regarding their workplace environment, and has scheduled a meeting with new department director, Anne Precythe. The investigatory committee will begin its work immediately.
“We have all been shocked and concerned by the stories and the lawsuits that have resulted from the environment that was allowed to exist within the department,” Hansen said. “It’s clear significant changes need to be made to put an end to this culture, and to give our underpaid corrections employees a safe, professional work environment.”
While lawmakers are focused on the Department of Corrections, numerous departments under former Gov. Jay Nixon have been hit with harassment and discrimination lawsuits in recent years. Since 2014, juries have ordered the state to pay more than $16 million in damages in discrimination lawsuits involving the departments of corrections, labor, revenue and public safety, along with the Missouri Veterans Commission.