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Lawmakers question officials on prison harassment

Lawmakers question officials on prison harassment

February 17th, 2017 by Associated Press in Missouri News

Missouri lawmakers grilled Corrections Department officials Thursday following reports alleging widespread harassment among prison system employees and retaliation against people who tried to report it.

"The checks and balances, they aren't there," Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat, said during a committee meeting.

Kansas City alternative weekly paper the Pitch reported prison worker claims of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other harassment by co-workers and retaliation by supervisors for speaking out. The newspaper reported the state spent more than $7.5 million on settlements and judgments between 2012 and 2016 related to the allegations.

Frankford Republican Rep. Jim Hansen, who's leading the House committee investigating the agency, said complaints he's heard about prisons are "very disturbing."

"It's like the place is dysfunctional," he said.

Inspector General Amy Roderick, whose office investigates complaints of potential criminal misconduct in the Corrections Department, said the current system allows for some complaints of potential criminal acts to fall through the cracks. She said most often it's wardens who report criminal allegations to her office, and they can decide whether alleged misconduct constituted potential law breaking or instead refer claims to the in-house human resources staff.

That could mean some allegations of criminal acts are not investigated as such. Potosi Republican Rep. Paul Fitzwater said the department is policing itself.

Human Services Director Cari Collins said the agency over the last five years made changes to reporting procedures and added three more human resources staffers to address complaints in response to lawsuits. She said most changes were finalized last summer.

But Collins said complaints have continued to rise, she said in part because of increased reporting requirements.

"That's one of the reasons why the reports have increased, because we expanded the definition of what needs to come to us," she said. "That's important because there are some (complaints) that are not clear cut."

Collins told lawmakers about 22 employee complaints still are pending, but more are filed every day. Roderick said her staff reviewed more than 1,500 complaints last fiscal year. About 420 were employee related.

Director Anne Precythe, appointed in December by new Gov. Eric Greitens, has said the issue is a top priority for her.