JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Corrections’ Director painted a picture to a House subcommittee of an improving environment, with the Department moving in a positive direction after making many changes
“The department really focused on our staff,” Anne Precythe said. “We believe an organization changes when the people change.”
The DOC has received a lot of attention since a November 2016 Pitch.com report that outlined a system-wide culture of harassment, intimidation, and abuse of officers by other prison guards that cost the state millions in settlements over several years. To combat the issue, House Speaker Todd Richardson formed the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct — to which, Precythe testified Thursday morning — in January 2016.
Precythe took the reins at DOC in January 2017, where she “inherited a mess,” according to Gov. Eric Greitens.
The subcommittee held several hearings in 2017 to get to study the problems and recommend changes. They gave several suggestions, including implementation of a zero-tolerance policy, creating a 24-hour hotline to report problems, a clearly defined chain of command for employees to file a complaint, a follow-up system through the Office of Professional Standards, and yearly sexual harassment training.
The DOC used the recommendations and results of a department-wide employee survey as a “road map” to altering the culture and environment of their workplace.
“We have had a significant number of leadership changes,” Precythe said, stating 75 percent of senior level management has changed, 80 percent of adult institution leadership has changed, and, at the end of this month, 100 percent of DAI leadership will have changed. 17 out the Missouri’s 21 prisons head leadership changes, including 11 new wardens.
DOC also reorganized the probation and parole section, with mostly new leadership. Moving forward, probation and parole will become more of a focus, according to Precythe.
“We did get outside help to help us transform the culture and environment of how our managers and supervisors communicate with staff,” Precythe said. DOC brought in the Cardon Group, a Missouri-based consulting firm.
They are in the process of rolling out training for leadership staff, that they call an “investment in our supervisors.” The training will include follow-up after 30, 60 and 90 days.
“We will be measuring outcomes,” Precythe said. “We will be looking for a reduction in turnover, a reduction in overtime, a reduction in disciplinary, a reduction in investigations. We are going to be talking with staff.
“If supervisors are struggling with communication in this new way, we will coach them. But at some point, if it’s not working, then we have all the communication tools we need to say ‘This is not the best role for you’ and then we will take some kind of action.”
Precythe is hoping to have the training program implemented fully by June.
With all the steps DOC has taken to this point, they recognize there are issues that still need to be addressed and changes made.
“Something we have realized, it that traditionally throughout adult institutions, we have not done a good job of cultivating the next round,” Precythe said, referring to a “bullpen” of employees ready to step up to supervisory or leadership roles. “And that is becoming very evident to us.”
Part of the issue could be the pay scale.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Jim Hansen put it simply, “we need more money for pay.”
Of DOC’s 11,232 employees, 11,021 earn less than $50,000 a year. Greitens has proposed that all state employees making less than $50,000 a year receive a $650 bonus.
“That, to me, is one of our biggest issues in the Department of Corrections,” Hansen said. “Plus we have too many people in prison.”
However, since everything is a line item in the budget, Precythe has very little wiggle room when it comes to wages, according to Rep. Kathie Conway.
As the DOC moves forward, they will be looking at efficiency and implementing more changes.
“In 2018, we are looking at corrections as a business,” Precythe said. “Last year, we were looking at our employees, we are going to sustain that. This year we are going look at how we operate corrections as a business.”
Reps. Tim Remole, Kathie Conway, and Bruce Franks, Jr. also serve on the subcommittee.
Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at firstname.lastname@example.org.