Major changes coming to corrections

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JEFFERSON CITY – The investigatory subcommittee created to examine harassment and hostile working conditions in Missouri’s prisons heard from two current corrections employees Thursday morning.

Travis Case, a storekeeper at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Missouri, said he sees problems the second he walks in to work.

“It’s like you’re walking into hell,” Case said. “The negativity, the micromanaging, the power tripping."

Case and other corrections workers said they believe a small fraction of employees have ruined the reputation of the state’s entire prison system - and cost Missouri taxpayers millions of dollars - amid continued sexual harassment lawsuits.

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, a member of the corrections subcommittee, said prior to the recent sexual harassment allegations, many corrections officials cited low wages as the key concern facing prison workers. And while Missouri ranks last in the nation in terms of prison pay, she said that isn’t the main issue.

Rep. Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, the chair of the corrections committee, said it is unacceptable for low-wage workers to have to deal with harassment, as well.

“Because we know they don't make a whole lot of money, we really know that," Fitzwater said. "We're fiftieth in the country when it comes to wages. But no one should have to go to work, and put up with what they do, with the harassment that they do."

Lt. Jason Horn, a corrections guard, is one of many workers who say wages aren't the biggest issue.

“A raise would be great, but it would not fix all the problems that plague us today,” Horn said.

Horn cites a culture of disrespect as the key problem. While speaking to the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct Thursday, Horn suggested the department institute stress management classes in order to promote retention, and said the department also needs an objective oversight committee to address future problems.

Fitzwater said one simple step would help.

"There should be a hot line set up, where they can call and address their concerns or their complaints, so they're not retaliated against," Fitzwater said. 

Conway said she was shocked when she first found out about the sexual harassment allegations last fall. But Case, who has worked in the Missouri Dept. of Corrections for 20 years, said such harassment issues started long before the public took notice.

“It always has been a, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ kind of system,” Case said. “It’s just been magnified, in the last couple of months, because of these lawsuits. Money always brings the attention.”

Also discussed during Thursday’s testimony: the minimum age of corrections workers.

“We are throwing kids into a dangerous environment,” Horn said. “Last week, they were worried about what was for lunch, or who’s dating who.” 

Fitzwater said he hasn’t heard any talk of raising the minimum age, but he believes it is a problem. 

“We have 19-year-olds, 19-year-olds, who are actually walking our prisons, guarding these inmates. And we’ve lowered the test scores so that we can get more qualified corrections officers.”

Conway said she expects to see a bill to raise the minimum age of corrections employees, from 19 to 21, brought forth at some point this year.

Fitzwater said it’s time lawmakers take action to help fix Missouri’s Dept. of Corrections.

“I know we have to do something, but I just think the morale across the state of Missouri is poor,” he said.

Case, and other employees, agree.

“This department needs to clean up its act,” he said.

KOMU 8 News reached out to the Department of Corrections. David Owen, the department's communications director, said, "The department appreciates the work the committee is doing and will look forward to its recommendations."