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Dept. of Corrections focused on fixing staffing, salaries, safety issues in Missouri prisons

Dept. of Corrections focused on fixing staffing, salaries, safety issues in Missouri prisons

February 17th, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Local News

Mark Wilson/News Tribune Corrections employees must be aware of their surroundings at all times, said Corrections Officer Janice Anderson (center). She is flanked by Warden Eileen Ramey (left) and Sherry Tolson, a case manager at Jefferson City Correctional Center.

In use for about 168 years, the Missouri State Penitentiary became infamous for executions and for numerous riots. And by the time it was shuttered in 2004, Time Magazine had dubbed it The Bloodiest 47 Acres in America.

MSP became a destination of dark, foreboding and unsafe surroundings, where criminals — some infamous, some forgettable — served out their sentences and sometimes their lives.

In 2004, officials moved MSP's inmates to Jefferson City Correctional Center, a modern $128 million prison whose intent is to rehabilitate rather than lock away offenders. But, even within the modernized system, prison staff know to remain wary of danger.

JCCC's staffing concerns reflect the same issues facing prisons across Missouri, according to Warden Eileen Ramey.

"Of course there are concerns. We're very short-staffed," Ramey said. "We're right around 85 — probably — total staffing down. Every staff member you're short in an institution makes a difference."

A major concern is finding staff to work in the prison kitchen, she said. But the institution is also short about 65 corrections officers.

Much of the problem, she said, lies in the low pay corrections officers receive.

"We have young staff that can go to Walmart and make more per hour," Ramey said. "They're not looking at longevity or concerned about retirement. The hourly pay matters."

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Corrections administrators said they could hire and keep better employees if they could offer more competitive wages, she said.

A plan from the governor

Gov. Mike Parson has made improving the plight of Corrections personnel a priority for his first full year in the office. He laid out his plan for creating revenue for raises by eliminating positions and consolidating two prisons during his 2019 State of the State address.

Improving state Department of Corrections employees' pay is among the first steps in assuring a safe, well-qualified workforce stays in place at the prison, Parson has said.

Parson's budget plan, he said, includes a 3 percent pay raise for each state employee beginning Jan. 1, 2020. It also sets aside revenue for salary adjustments for Corrections personnel (1 percent increases for every two years of service, up to 20 years).

To free up that revenue, the governor and Corrections Director Anne Precythe announced they would place Crossroads Correctional Facility in mothballs and move its 960 maximum-security prisoners to nearby Western Missouri Correctional Center, which is a medium-security prison.

Both prisons are in Cameron.

Half of Western is to be converted to maximum security at a cost of $3 million. The money for the change has already been set aside. Some staff from Crossroads will transfer to Western, filling positions that are understaffed. Others will have the option to move to other prisons across the state and help fill openings.

An impact on paychecks

When Mel Carnahan was governor in the late 1990s, it seemed like providing pay raises and retaining staff were higher priorities than in later years, said Stanley Keely, a deputy warden at JCCC.

Those raises dried up after Carnahan died in a plane crash Oct. 16, 2000. And it has been years since state employees, including Corrections personnel, have regularly received raises.

"It's very frustrating because everything changes over the years," said Capt. Mark Moore, who has been with the department for 21 years. "Gas prices. Day care. Food. Rent. Just everything. Everything changes. When your pay doesn't keep up with the times, it directly affects your living."

There was a time when a new Corrections employee could afford a family and a modest home, he said. But that was years ago.

Last year, they got a $700 per year raise, which started in Jan. 1 this year. Corrections employees got that $700, plus an additional $350.

"Part of the proposed payroll budget plan is to pay our staff some more longevity pay that will help a lot," Ramey said during an interview this month. "We have employees who would start today as a corrections officer that make as much as staff that have been here for 20 years."

Until this proposed pay increase, a way to earn "a bump in pay" within Corrections has been to seek advancement in rank, he said.

While the compensation enters into decisions to seek promotions, money is not always the deciding factor in seeking them, Keely said. For him, the goal was always to improve himself while serving Missouri.

Keely started as a corrections officer 30 years ago. He remained one for 15 years.

"The money was not that great, but compared to the local economy, we did pretty well — especially living in the Jefferson City area," Keely said. "You could take vacations, and you could buy a modest home, finance a car, start a family."

Finding and retaining employees

Much of Corrections' efforts in the past year has been focused on finding potential new employees to address staffing shortages, as well as improving retention of current employees.

Karen Pojmann, the department's communications director, said Corrections is using multiple avenues to reach out to potential new employees.

It attends job fairs throughout the state, recruits using social media, telemarkets, provides video testimonials from staff, rents billboards, offers apprenticeships, cooperates with the National Guard and offers part-time positions within some institutions.

It can be a challenge to recruit corrections officers, as well as support staff, in a prison setting.

There is a tremendous shortage of cooks for prisons, officials said.

"The cooks make less than corrections officers," Keely said. "And they work in that kitchen with inmates around sharp instruments every single day. That's a difficult thing to sell to hire people."

There is also a lot of things JCCC can and is doing internally to improve its retention rates, Maj. Myles Strid said. If the department can retain staff, it will spend less time and money recruiting and training personnel, he said.

Ramey agreed.

"I can't give you numbers, but it costs a fortune to train staff. And we're not retaining those staff," she said. "We feel that if this pay proposal gets approved and passed, that would help us keep some of those trained staff."

The department has implemented system-wide leadership programs to improve the morale of its staff. It is switching to more casual Battle Dress Uniforms that feature tailored, more-casual, athletic-style polo shirts and trousers with cargo pockets.

"That was one thing (administrators) looked at and said, 'Hey, let's make staff more comfortable. That's within our means,'" Strid said.

Following a workplace satisfaction survey done in the department, the administration realized employees didn't feel appreciated.

"People didn't see their value. They didn't know which direction we were headed," Strid said. "We sat down with every employee and went over the department's goals. I'm talking 2 hours with every employee."

The conversations helped employees better understand where they fit in with the department's goals, as well as highlighted areas where management needed to improve.

"A bad supervisor — I don't care if you get paid $60,000 per year — a bad supervisor can chase you off of that job," he said. "So we're addressing those things."

The department sought out its most impactful managers. It looked for who has the most contact with employees and tried to make them better at what they do.

"I did that and I learned a lot about myself. That was all aimed at making my staff more comfortable here and keeping them happy," Strid said. "Making them feel like they're appreciated."

Safety is top priority, concern

Corrections officer Janice Anderson has been with the department 17 years — and first worked in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

She's seen some changes — and how some things have stayed the same.

On the bright side, Anderson, who works in the Segregation Unit at the men's prison, said she feels somewhat safer in the newer facility because it is laid out better, it has no "blind spots" that the old facility had and it uses technology — like cameras — to maintain vigilant surveillance of the prisoners.

In the old prison, Anderson worked as a utility officer in the hospital. She would take sick offenders to outside hospitals and "sit on them" for hours at a time — making sure they got treatment and making sure the environment was safe.

But let's be clear: She doesn't feel safe.

"I feel unsafe there all day, every day," she said. "This is a prison. It's not like we're going to school."

Offenders are placed in the segregation unit where she works because they've committed a "crime" within the general jail population. Those inmates must meet certain steps before they are allowed to return to the general population, if they ever are.

Her routine is about coming in, doing her job and being alert. All Corrections employees must be aware of their surroundings at all times, she said.

It's a lesson passed on from the veterans who have to assist and mentor the new employees and offenders, Anderson and Moore said.

"We learn from each other," Anderson said. "We have to have each other's back."

"From start to finish. Even when I was in year one, I was helping officers out," Moore said. "And progressed throughout my career. Mentored them. Trained them. Stuck with them."

Much of the institutional knowledge Strid gleaned from Moore, his supervisor 10 years ago, had to do with treating offenders with respect.

"A lot of people don't realize how important it is to treat offenders like they're human. A lot of people come in here with authoritative mentality and try to tell people what to do," Strid said. "But here — you really have to build respect. People have to know that you care about them."

Staff can't just lock people away in a cell and forget about them. They have to get to know the offenders and help them reach their goals, he said.

Corrections has been very focused on getting its leadership to be good, approachable, understanding people who know what their staff members do every day, Ramey said.

That comes down from Director Anne Precythe, she said.

"I can tell there's a change. People are very comfortable coming to my office to speak to me. I never would have done that as a new employee," Ramey said. "The department, on the whole, is on the right track. People want to come to work. We are a family. I know that's a cliché, but we are. And I think Corrections, more so maybe than other departments, because we have to have each others' backs."

Being part of a family means protecting one another.

"Safety is our No. 1 thing," she said. "Everybody who is coming to work and putting their life at risk is more important (than the one person who may not want to work overtime).

Anderson, who will arrive at work hours early — like at 2:30 a.m. for a shift that ends at 5:30 p.m. — said she doesn't mind as long as she sees her supervisors are doing the same.

"When I do that, and I see my deputy warden out at about at 5 o'clock in the morning, you know what, that gives me the oomph again tomorrow to come in again," she said. "Because, guess what, she's losing rest just like I am so that all of us can be safe."