JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A special Missouri legislative committee on Tuesday announced sweeping recommendations on reforming the state’s prison system in response to reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct by corrections employees.
The House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct said its suggestions are meant to eliminate what it called a hostile employee environment to which corrections workers were subjected.
The recommendations include a zero-tolerance policy and a 24-hour hotline, random employee drug screening and yearly sexual harassment training, new recruitment and hiring procedures for supervisors, and appropriate disciplining of people found guilty of misconduct.
Other suggestions include enacting a probationary period for new employees, creating a new selection process for wardens and annual review by the department director, and requiring “in-depth” management and leadership training for wardens and all prison administrators.
The recommendations, coming after nine hearings by the panel across the state from February to April, will be sent to House Speaker Todd Richardson, who helped form the committee after publicized claims of harassments of prison employees and millions of dollars in legal payouts by the state in such cases, with more pending.
The Department of Corrections said in a statement Tuesday that it appreciates the panel’s work, already has made some of the recommended reforms and will review the remaining ones in hopes of putting them into effect.
“Our recommendations are meant to give the department a path forward as it looks to end this unacceptable culture of harassment and replace it with an environment that treats employees with respect,” Republican state Rep. Jim Hansen, the committee’s chairman from Frankford, said in a statement.
Missouri’s new corrections chief, Anne Precythe, inherited a troubled department when she was confirmed by the state Senate in February.
The agency fell under scrutiny after the Kansas City alternative weekly paper, The Pitch, reported prison worker claims of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other harassment by co-workers and retaliation by supervisors for speaking out. The newspaper reported the state spent more than $7.5 million on settlements and judgments between 2012 and 2016 related to the allegations; Tuesday’s statement by the subcommittee put that figure at $10 million over the past five years, with more cases pending.
Precythe in March announced she she’s implementing a zero-tolerance policy for managers who fail to properly respond to reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct. She also said she’s creating an Office of Professional Standards “to ensure investigations and employee discipline cases are completed efficiently, fairly, and timely.”