VANDALIA - KOMU 8 News learned in January of multiple alleged incidents of excessive force at the Vandalia Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correction Center. Those incidents raise the question: is that prison for punishment or rehabilitation? KOMU 8's Dan Kennedy investigated those two reported incidents and found some alarming details about those involved.
A memorandum sent to Warden Angela Messmer and the DOC disciplinary board details a June 18, 2012 incident in which corrections officer Jo Ann Myers alleges excessive force was used against an inmate. The memo says Sergeant Nicholson, a female guard, allegedly "picked a fight" and escalated an altercation with offender Chrisandra Ballou.
Ballou, 21, is serving a 10-year sentence for first-degree robbery and armed criminal action stemming from an arrest in St. Louis.
The memo doesn't go into detail about the incident but Myers states she felt the need to file "use of force" paperwork.
Myers said Lieutenant Justin Swank was given a hand-held video camera with footage of the incident to review. According to the memo, Swank determined there was no use of force but Myers disagreed, saying proper paperwork should be filed. To which, Swank reportedly responded in a stern manner, "I said, it was not a use of force and I do not want an IOC."
On this particular June evening, Swank was supposedly the shift commander and highest-ranking officer. His word trumped all others. Myers claims Swank ordered another worker, Sergeant Danel Hawkins, to erase the footage. Any evidence of the alleged event was destroyed that evening.
"When you go to prison, it should be for rehabilitation and not for punishment," said Hedy Harden, founder of Missouri "CURE."
CURE, which stands for Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, is a statewide prisoner advocacy group. Harden says abuse of power in prisons is widespread and not just a Vandalia problem.
"When guards have power over prisoners, it creates a dynamic where justice just flies out the window. The person has too much power and it becomes a corrupt thing," Harden said.
Myers echoes that sentiment, saying those involved promoted a "do as I say and don't ask questions atmosphere," adding "they made a mockery of our employee code of conduct."
Myers summed up her view of the alleged incident saying, "I believe I, my co-workers and offender Ballou were failed by supervising staff in multiple ways that evening, first by Sergeant Nicholson for her unprofessional and unethical behavior for ‘picking a fight' with an offender and escalating the situation. Secondly, by COII Swank for failing to do the required paperwork and attempting to tamper with evidence or cover up what happened by having the video footage erased. Thirdly, by COII Hawkins for erasing the video footage."
The memo continues, saying Swank ordered Myers to write Ballou a violation for "tearing a mattress." Myers said she felt it was unjustified because the file indicated it already had a tear when it was assigned to her. Swank allegedly threatened to put a negative in her employee file for insubordination if she didn't write the violation.
If the allegations are true, three state workers could face serious felony charges:
• Offender abuse
• Tampering with physical evidence
• Failure to report offender abuse
• Tampering with a witness
• Tampering with a victim
Despite the severity of alleged incidents like this, Harden said such problems in prison are inevitable.
"Outside monitoring is desperately needed to prevent abuses like this, abuses of power and human rights violations," Harden said.
COLUMBIA WOMAN SHARES HER VANDALIA EXPERIENCE
Janella Burnett was 21 years old when she began serving a four year sentence at Vandalia for assault and possession of a controlled substance in 2005. She shared similar stories of abuse, including one vivid memory of a Spring 2006 incident.
She said after leaving the infirmary, a corrections officer grabbed her shirt collar from behind and slung her to the ground. "By this time, I just became defensive to protect myself," she said. "We ended up in scuffle."
Burnett admitted to hitting the officer in the scuffle, and more guards showed up for backup. She said the guards saw her as a threat so they took her to a holding cell that she said is used for offenders on suicide watch. Burnett referred to that cell as the "hole," where she said she had very little interaction with other inmates.
She said the beating continued while she was handcuffed and shackled in the hole. "Next thing I know, I had four officers stepping on me and kicking me," she said. "I was very bloody, my hands and feet were very swollen."
She said after what she estimated to be eight minutes of beating, she reached out to a corrections officer standing at the door. "I kept saying, Ms. Baldwin, please help me, please help me. And she said, ‘the only thing you need to do is shut your mouth,'" she said.
Burnett said she spent nine months in the hole while under investigation for that Spring 2006 incident in which she allegedly hit the corrections officer. During that time, she claims the prison monitored her mail, choosing only certain items to be sent to her in the hole.
"I think the warden needs to be held responsible because they're the ones in control of the whole compound," Burnett said.
DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS RESPONSE
On January 30, KOMU 8 News submitted an open records request via the Missouri Sunshine law to the Missouri Department of Corrections asking for the employment status of those involved and any internal disciplinary action they've faced. The department hasn't fulfilled that request.
A department spokesperson refused comment on this story, saying the department doesn't comment on personnel matters.
But in regards to the alleged excessive force against offender Ballou, the DOC sent an email to KOMU Wednesday afternoon, just hours before the story aired, saying: "This matter has been investigated and discipline is being administered against the appropriate employees."