Editorials

Editorial: Toying with inmates and hiring family members — much work remains to reform the Missouri prison system

Refurbishing the image of the Department of Corrections has bogged down over families running prisons and a silly word game that led to a parole board member’s resignation. Anne Precythe, the department’s director, faces a daunting challenge in cleaning up a toxic atmosphere.
Refurbishing the image of the Department of Corrections has bogged down over families running prisons and a silly word game that led to a parole board member’s resignation. Anne Precythe, the department’s director, faces a daunting challenge in cleaning up a toxic atmosphere. File photo

The Missouri Department of Corrections had enough problems on its hands. Then the media found out about the word game.

Turns out, a state parole board member and another government worker concocted a silly contest that they played during parole hearings. They tried to work predetermined words, such as “hootenanny,” “platypus” or “Folsom Prison Blues,” into the meetings. Points were awarded. Scores were kept. And if a inmate said one of the words? That resulted in points, too.

The department’s inspector general got wind of the game and documented it. The result? The parole board member, Don Ruzicka, resigned this month.

Board chairman Kenny Jones said members of the board “must be held to a higher standard.” Now there’s a concept. The Department of Corrections said it had started taking steps to reach that higher standard in the wake of reports that its prisons were mired in a culture of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Altogether, the state has paid out $7.5 million in settlements and judgments since 2012, and more than two dozen lawsuits have yet to be heard. That was bad enough. Then the word game came along, and national publicity followed.

It all amounts to an enormous challenge for Anne Precythe, who came aboard in February as the department’s director. She has promised to usher in an era of reform and wipe out the toxic atmosphere in the department. Meantime, a special House committee created to look into the crisis developed thoughtful recommendations that include a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and a 24-hour hotline for reporting violations to the Office of Professional Standards.

But now, a new report from St. Louis Public Radio points to yet another problem that may slow the pace of reform. The report suggests that little will change until some top-line officers are fired. The issue here is troubling: Families that reportedly are giving preferential treatment to their own relatives are running some state prisons.

“It’s the same families that run the prisons,” said Frederick Richardson, a former corrections officer at the Tipton facility who has sued the department. “You’re talking about small communities … they’re a family helping their family (members) get hired, and then helping their family get promoted.”

It is, Richardson said, almost like the mafia.

Weeding those people out of the system will take time, as Precythe has acknowledged. But she has little choice if she wants to reform the system. Prisons can’t function well with families who are focused on promoting from within in charge. But that’s exactly what seems to be happening in Missouri.

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