Department of Corrections hearing leaves questions unanswered, irks legislators

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Frustration from lawmakers filled the latest hearing of the committee designed to investigate a glut of harassment allegations in the Missouri Department of Corrections.

House members on the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct heard testimony Thursday morning from two officials within the department that oversee both workforce and criminal investigations in the state’s prisons.

Cari Collins, the director of the division of human services, said she oversaw disputes and investigations over personnel on personnel issues, but some lawmakers were unhappy she did not know the specifics of certain cases.

“I feel like we’re dancing around the subject,” Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, asked nearly 45 minutes into a lengthy testimony. “If you’re the division director over human resources, then how can we say ultimately you didn’t have some knowledge over how complaints were handled?”

She noted some cases may not have reached her desk because she did not receive complaints about how complaints were handled, which was her job in an advisory role.

Collins also provided some context as to why the number of reports had increased. She noted the department had changed its discrimination qualifications to include unprofessional conduct (not just harassment and retaliation) and the reporting process had also increased the number of ways someone could be reported. She added since the harassment allegations came to light her division had hired three additional human relations officers to conduct investigations and had placed more responsibility on supervisors to separate officers when something was reported.

Inspector General Amy Roderick of the also testified, but she noted her division mainly looked into criminal charges against officers accused of committing crimes, like theft, possession of contraband, and abuse and sexual harassment against offenders.

While she noted investigations into officer-on-officer harassment were not under her jurisdiction, lawmakers were again frustrated with that answer. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Frankford, the chair of the committee called it a “shell game” of responsibility. Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, and several others questioned whether Roderick and Collins’ divisions could somehow be merged to clear up any confusion between who investigates what.

“We have an investigative body that’s technically not allowed to investigate everything,” Franks said. “The checks and balances aren’t there… It seems like it’s passing the buck, saying ‘We don’t do this, this person does this.’ “

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, said she was “disappointed we’re not getting a clearer picture” and hoped the investigatory committee would have better luck in the future nailing down specifically where the problem lies.

Hansen said future hearings would include testimony from wardens, past and present employees and other staff to nail down exactly what is going on with harassment claims in Missouri’s prisons. Despite the problems with Thursday’s hearing, he thought it was productive.

“It was kind of what I was looking for in a lot of ways,” he said. “It was an eye-opener for all of us in terms of does the right hand know what the left hand’s doing, and who’s in charge of what. It seems like there’s a lot of disconnect to me in the communication channels and who knows what when in terms of how some of these issues have dropped under the radar.”

He added the current situation was a “can of worms.”

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