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Our Opinion: Corrections problems need immediate attention

Our Opinion: Corrections problems need immediate attention

News Tribune Editorial

January 6th, 2019 by News Tribune in Opinion

The Missouri Department of Corrections continues to embarrass our state.

What's far worse, its failure to address — or even fully acknowledge — growing problems in the system put its own employees' safety at risk.

As we detailed in a story last Sunday, former Corrections employees are speaking out about problems they say need immediate attention; problems they say the higher ups haven't rectified.

Not all of Correction's problems are of their own doing. In a state with the nation's worst average pay for state employees, Corrections employees, historically, have been among Missouri government's lowest-paid. A good portion of the department's current problems stem from the fact that we have a good economy and low unemployment. Because of this, it's difficult to hire and retain corrections officers.

In the 2018 report to the Joint Committee on Corrections, officials with the Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC) reported the average vacancy rate for all staff and for custody staff at "19.32 percent, with the bulk of this being our Corrections Officer 1 position, which has a turnover rate of 21.30 percent."

On Dec. 9, we reported the department had 789 correctional officer vacancies with a starting pay of $29,500.

That many vacancies leaves the remaining correctional officers to perform their duties, which includes keeping the peace — and often being required to work overtime to cover the vacant positions.

In October and November, 19 corrections officers were assaulted, said Bill Schmutz, a retired deputy warden at Algoa Correctional Center. The assaults, Schmutz said, included officers getting punched, kicked, cut and stabbed, leaving the officers with multiple wounds or broken bones requiring anything from stitches to hospitalization. There also was a sexual assault reported, he said.

Schmutz and other former employees have been working to bring attention to the problems, something the department itself doesn't seem motivated to do.

In fact, the Corrections Department doesn't want us to look too closely at its operations.

On Oct. 9, the News Tribune filed a Sunshine Law request, seeking the serious offender reports filed at the three area prisons — Jefferson City Correctional Center, Algoa Correctional Center and Tipton Correctional Center — after a Corrections employee had been injured.

The department declined the open records request, saying it related to "institutional security."

But such reports deal with events such as a riot, death, hostage situation or other incidents relating to institutional security. If anything in the reports could compromise security, they could be redacted from the reports. But the reports themselves should be open records for anyone to view. We've appealed the decision to the state attorney general's office.

The department also refused our request to compare staffing levels at the three area prisons over the past three years. DOC Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann again cited security concerns.

It may be a public relations concern, but it's not a security concern.

What is the average number of years' experience of the staff at the three area prisons? Again, a non-answer from Pojmann: "We don't have a simple way to track the number of years of relevant experience for each employee at each facility."

The department has taken steps to address its problems. But before it can fully solve the problems, it needs to be better about openly admitting them to the public.

Corrections Director Anne Precythe said fixing her department's problems will take time. But, with the safety of corrections officers and inmates on the line, we're running out of patience.

We urge the Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the Missouri Legislature, to establish a plan to speed up the process for fixing its most serious problems.

News Tribune