Crisis in Missouri prisons 'downplayed'

Vacancies, violence against staff greater than portrayed, former warden says

Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City is pictured here in July 2018.
Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City is pictured here in July 2018.

Staff vacancies and violence against correctional officers are higher than the Missouri Department of Corrections is willing to admit or divulge, according to former employees of the department.

Since July, Bill Schmutz, a retired deputy warden at Algoa Correctional Center, has been working with other retired or departed Corrections workers to bring attention to what they say are serious issues needing immediate attention.

In what he called a partial list of assaults gathered by current and former DOC staff, Schmutz said correctional officers were assaulted 19 times in October and November alone.

The institutions and number of attacks are: Potosi Correctional Center, 5; Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, 4; South Central Correctional Center in Licking, 3; Jefferson City Correctional Center, 2; Tipton Correctional Center, 1; Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, 1; Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, 1; Chillicothe Correctional Center, 1; and Algoa Correctional Center, 1.

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.

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.

On Nov. 1, DOC declined the request, saying, "the department considers incident reports to be internal administrative documents relating to institutional security which may be lawfully withheld in response to a records request."

According to DOC, serious incident reports are completed by the chief administrative officer at an institution when an event such as a riot, death, hostage situation or other incident relating to institutional security occurs, and they are distributed to a limited group of executive-level staff and other employees as needed.

Jean Maneke, the Missouri Press Association's legal hotline attorney, noted the Sunshine Law request related to incidents of violence in the department, not documentation of security provisions.

"If there are portions of the record that relate to security, i.e. that point out deficiencies in department security or that talk about potential solutions," Maneke said, "there's no reason those recommendations or conclusions about shortfalls could not be segregated and redacted from the rest of the report that identifies in detail the incidents that happened and persons who were injured."

On Nov. 5, the News Tribune filed a complaint with the attorney general over Corrections' refusal to produce the records. As of Thursday, the complaint still was being reviewed, according to Mary Compton with the Missouri Attorney General's Office.

The incidents of violence against correctional officers have not been reported by DOC to the media in a timely manner as they should be, Schmutz said.

The 34-year DOC veteran, who retired in May, said he was not disgruntled nor jaded.

"The problems are primarily due to the number of corrections officer vacancies," Schmutz said. "Poor pay, poor legislative action to address, and poor leadership at the department and division level are the root causes."

He maintains the prisons are more dangerous now than they ever have been, due to an insufficient number of corrections officers, stretched staffing and inexperienced staff.

During a Dec. 7 forum focusing on DOC, Corrections Director Anne Precythe said the department had 789 correctional officer vacancies at the 21 DOC facilities, with a starting pay of $29,500. The department has 4,773 correction officer positions, meaning the department has a 16.5 percent vacancy rate.

Schmutz said he believes the vacancy number is "much higher."

"DOC and the legislators have been downplaying this crisis," he said. "This is what prompted us to, somewhat covertly, begin to reach out and pass on staff concerns to the media, legislators and governor."

In mid-November, the News Tribune asked Corrections for data concerning staff vacancy numbers at the three area prisons.

In terms of inmate populations, the three Jefferson City area prisons have been running close to capacity for the past three years.

According to data from DOC and the Offender Profile submitted to the Joint Committee on Corrections in April 2018, the two Jefferson City area prisons approached, but did not exceed, capacity in the past three years, while the Tipton prison did exceed capacity one year during that three-year period.

With a capacity for 1,971 inmates, Jefferson City Correctional Center has reported inmate populations of 1,933 in 2018, 1,935 in 2017 and 1,940 in 2016.

With a capacity of 1,537 inmates, Algoa Correctional Center has reported inmate populations of 1,425 in 2018, 1,536 in 2017 and 1,511 in 2016.

With a capacity of 1,222 inmates, Tipton Correctional Center has reported inmate populations of 1,091 in 2018, 1,247 in 2017 and 1,210 in 2016.

When asked to compare staffing levels during those same years, DOC Spokeswoman Karen Pojmann declined, saying she could not disclose staff vacancy numbers for specific institutions because of security concerns.

"Although things have improved somewhat in the past couple of months, we absolutely have a serious staffing shortage and aren't suggesting otherwise," Pojmann added.

But in the 2018 report to the Joint Committee on Corrections, officials with JCCC reported the average vacancy rate for all staff and for custody staff only as "19.32 percent, with the bulk of this being our Corrections Officer 1 position, which has a turnover rate of 21.30 percent."

JCCC reported critical staff shortages in the positions of Cook 2 and Corrections Officer 1, according to the report.

When asked to assess the morale of the custody staff, JCCC officials said, "We are losing a large number of staff to better-paying jobs. This is affecting morale by the loss of seasoned and experienced staff."

In the Joint Committee on Corrections report, Algoa officials reported a smaller vacancy rate than JCCC. Algoa reported 4 percent vacancy rates in its overall staff, as well as its custody staff.

Algoa's report noted compensatory time accrual and usage were contributing to additional hours being worked by staff and, sometimes, lowering morale if there is no relief.

In the Corrections report, Tipton officials reported there were no critical shortages of staffing at this time, but did acknowledge that the prison was operating with minimal staffing at all times.

The average vacancy rate for all staff was less than 1 percent, but it jumped substantially to 9.3 percent for custody staff.

Because of the minimal staffing, Tipton officials said, accrual of compensatory time was a constant concern for management.

When asked the average years of experience for staff at each of the three area prisons, Pojmann said, "We don't have a simple way to track the number of years of relevant experience for each employee at each facility."

System-wide, more than 60 percent of the department's workforce has less than five years on the job, Precythe said.

She said the department has made strides in recruiting, how it manages its workforce and how it treats its workforce. She said they are listening to staff and trying to implement what they can when suggestions are made. But, it's a matter of finding money, she said.

Corrections officials will be pushing to have lawmakers make improvements at the state's prisons a top priority when they start work next week at the Capitol, she said. But because DOC is a large organization, she said, change won't come overnight.

But the change must come quickly, Schmutz said.

"We are sounding the alarm, and hopefully 'they' will listen and seriously address these shortages as the No. 1 safety issue that it is.

"They (corrections officers) are being overworked two to three extra shifts a week. They are tired and burned out and that leads to staff mistakes. And in prison, mistakes equal someone getting hurt or killed. It is just a matter of time.

"Remember folks, it is not the razor wire that keeps these dangerous felons in prison," he said. "It is the front-line staff, the corrections officers."

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