In 2016, former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens vowed to fix the troubled Department of Corrections, saying it was beset by a “culture of harassment and neglect ... with low morale and shockingly high turnover.”
He hired Anne Precythe, a North Carolina corrections official, to resolve the department’s widely publicized scandals, including sexual harassment lawsuits and complaints of a hostile work environment.
In the Facebook post announcing Precythe’s hire, Greitens made this promise: “We pledged in the campaign to ‘do different,’ and with Anne at the helm of the Department of Corrections, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Three years later, the situation within the state Department of Corrections hasn’t gotten better. In fact, it’s worse, according to a joint investigation by KOMU, KBIA and the Columbia Missourian.
Here’s what the investigation found from department documents:
- In the past four years, Department of Corrections vacancies have more than quadrupled, from 143 to nearly 800 openings.
- Since 2014, the department has spent a record $76 million in overtime salary.
- In the last six years, assaults on employees have increased 26 percent.
Former employees, inmate advocates and correctional experts say working and living conditions inside the state’s 22 prisons can be miserable and, at times, dangerous.
Gary Gross, the director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, an organization for correctional officers, said the department’s current situation showcases years of neglect.
“The environment in the DOC is worse today than it was under the past leadership,” Gross said. “It has not improved.”
In response, Precythe said low pay makes it difficult for the agency to recruit and retain employees.
“It’s probably always had challenges and always will. That’s the nature of corrections,” Precythe said. “It’s about coming in and assessing the situation and then putting out a plan about, ‘how are we going to attack this?’”
The department does have a strategic plan to address the staffing concerns and create a safer work environment. According to the plan, one of the goals is to improve the workforce by hiring, developing and retaining quality staff.
The plan also includes $35 million in funding that has been approved by the state legislature and was included in the 2019-20 budget.
Lawsuits and salaries
The Department of Corrections has struggled for years with lawsuits and staffing.
Since 2012, the state has paid more than $7 million in 60 lawsuits including alleged sexual harassment and workplace complaints, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Furthermore, Missouri was ordered in August to pay $113 million in one class-action lawsuit for failing to accurately compensate corrections officers for overtime that dates back to 2007, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune.
The state has never recognized the value of corrections officers, Gross said.
“They have always been underpaid.”
Missouri correctional officers rank second to last in the nation for pay, ahead of only Mississippi, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to correctional officers, the data adds jail and courthouse guards.
The median annual pay for correctional officers and jailers in Missouri is $30,050, or $15.22 an hour. The national median pay for corrections officers is $49,300, according to the federal data.
Missouri correctional officers could cross the border to Iowa and earn over $21,000 more in annual wages. Or they could head to Illinois and receive nearly $33,280 more every year, doubling a Missouri officer’s median yearly wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The problem is hiring qualified, good staff for the money they pay,” Gross said.
A study by Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, a research organization based in California, showed that state correctional agencies have little advantage over jobs in retail and other competitors in the private sector.
The study found that in Florida, for example, entry-level corrections officers had an average salary of $28,000. The Florida Department of Corrections said that at that rate, “the agency is competing for talent with retailers, such as Walmart, rather than other law enforcement agencies.”
In the past four years, the Department of Corrections has experienced a dramatic increase in vacancies. The department had 791 correction officer positions unfilled as of early May, according to department data received from the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
To keep prisons open, the department must enforce mandatory overtime for officers. The department has a policy of notifying officers 24 hours in advance if they are required to serve overtime.
Precythe acknowledged, however, that the 24-hour notification policy does get broken.
“The reality is that’s not always possible,” she said.
Former Algoa and Tipton corrections officer Troy Johnson said there is an “unwritten rule” that you couldn’t say no to work calls for overtime shifts.
He quit in 2013 after serving as a Missouri corrections officer for nearly a decade, citing overtime as a particularly stressful part of the job.
“The state right now is killing them,” Johnson said. “I know these guys are working 40 to 60 hours a week, and they’re just breaking the backs of the guys that are in there.”
Jeana Raper said low staffing wasn’t an issue in 2015 when she started working at Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum security prison.
“Then, all of a sudden, mandated overtime. People quitting, people walking out,” she said.
“You didn’t know when you were going to go home,” said Raper, who quit in 2017. “At the end of the shift, I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be able to go home at 11:30 or if they were going to mandate me to stay until 4 in the morning.”
In fiscal year 2018, the Missouri Department of Corrections paid over $26 million in overtime, according to data obtained from the Missouri Corrections Officers Association.
Altogether, the department has paid its employees $75 million in overtime since 2014 to keep the facilities running while understaffed, according to overtime data from the association.
Precythe acknowledged the department has spent an all-time high in overtime costs this past year. Constant staffing is necessary for prisons to operate, even if it means requiring employees to stay past their normal shifts, she said.
The money from lapsed salaries is used to pay for the additional overtime, she said.
“It’s not something we can prepare for; it’s something we have to react to,” she said.
According to data obtained in a public records request from the Missouri Department of Corrections, assaults on prison employees increased 26 percent in four years. Assaults against inmates have risen by 8.5 percent.
Of all assaults from 2014 to 2018, 30 percent were considered “major,” meaning they involved serious physical injury either with or without a weapon, throwing body fluids or nonconsensual sexual advances.
Seventy percent of the assaults were “minor,” referring to nonserious physical injuries where first aid was needed, such as physically aggressive acts and subjecting employees to physical contact without their consent.
This year, the department began posting detailed reports of incidents and assaults on its website. The reports explain the events and injuries sustained by an officer or inmate.
While the number of assaults has increased, so has the inmate population, said Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Department of Corrections. The offender population rose from 31,905 in 2014 to a peak of 33,253 in September 2017, she said in an email.
Pojmann said the rate of “serious assaults” on staff has not changed in the past year. She also acknowledged that an increase in prison population and a decrease in staffing “adversely affects safety.”
Pojmann said she doesn’t believe staff leave because of the assault risk, but because they can get better jobs in a healthy economy.
“When people leave, that creates staffing shortages with fatigue leading to offender unrest. I would say understaffing shortage is caused by (a healthy) economy, and understaffing can lead to unsafe working conditions,” Pojmann said in an email.
As a former employee, Raper said that in her experience, prisoners notice understaffing, and the possibility of fights, stabbings and contraband increases.
“They know they can get away with a lot more when there’s not an extra set of eyes watching,” she said.
In 2015, an inmate attacked corrections officer Judy Post when she was working alone in a housing unit at Jefferson City Correctional Center. In a matter of 20 seconds, she was hit 33 times, according to confidential prison surveillance footage and the probable cause statement.
Post has never told her story before, but she shared it in a video interview with KOMU.
“My brain said, ‘Oh, this is not good. This is not going to be good.’ And that’s the last I heard,” Post said in the interview.
Court documents show the state charged prison inmate Joshua Perkins with first-degree assault, and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Post, who was 69 years old at the time of the attack, said the inmate beat her on the face, bruised her face and broke her nose.
“I had a brain injury from that,” she said.
Change in standards
In an effort to increase its work force, the Department of Corrections has adjusted its hiring standards. In the past, officers had to be 21 years of age and pass physical and agility tests, according to Pojmann, the department spokesperson.
Now applicants can be 19 years old, and there are no physical or agility tests, according to the department’s online hiring page. Employees must also pass a criminal background check, provide proof of tax payments and have one year of work experience and a high school diploma or the equivalent.
“For comparison, the minimum age to join the military is 17,” Pojmann said.
Though officers no longer have to pass a physical or agility test prior to hire, new officers do have to pass defensive tactics training, Pojmann said.
The biggest motivation for these altered standards is to hire more people — and it’s worked. Precythe said nearly 60 percent of department employees have been on the job for five years or less.
“This is a whole new department that we can craft and mold,” Precythe said.
But Eileen Deckert, a former nurse at the minimum security prison in Boonville, isn’t so sure an influx of younger staff is the answer. She said employing younger officers can lead to serious breaches in protocol. Younger employees, she said, tend to bend the rules for the men they fraternize with.
“They don’t have the training and experience,” Deckert said. “I mean criminals ... think they can manipulate you and win you over.”
The Department of Corrections is trying other strategies to recruit employees.
The department is trying to identify returning and retired military personal and looking for a potential employment partnership with the Missouri National Guard, according to a 2018 message to department staff from Precythe.
The department has also set up a high school apprenticeship program to recruit younger officers, another item in Precythe’s message to staff.
According to the message, this apprenticeship program will partner with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the U.S. Department of Labor and has yet to be fully implemented.
In July 2018, Precythe addressed the understaffing issue in a message to employees. She explained how the department is trying to recruit employees with billboards, social media posts and other methods.
She also asked current staff to be careful about their own social media posts, stating, “Think before you make a negative post about the department. Think before you like or share such a post. These type of posts hurt morale, which hurts retention.”
In January, Gov. Mike Parson voiced his support for the department’s new $35.1 million pay plan, which will give employees across-the-board pay raises and consolidate two prisons.
Combining Crossroads and Western Missouri orrectional enters in Cameron would save about $20.6 million, according to the department’s Staff Pay Plan Announcement.
“When we consolidate those two prisons, that $20 million will still be allocated to the department, so we’re going to take and put that toward a pay plan,” Precythe said.
In addition, the department will save about $8 million by implementing other changes, such as a new timekeeping system and health care savings tied to a plan to reduce the offender population, Pojmann said. Another $7.5 million would come from the recently approved state budget.
On top of a 3 percent cost-of-living pay increase for all state employees, department employees would also receive a raise of 1 percent for every two years of employment with the department, up to 20 years.
This includes those who have had a “break in service,” according to Pojmann.
That means a corrections officer who makes $31,288 and had four years of experience would get a total pay raise of $1,584 and make $32,872 a year at the start of his or her fifth year.
The pay plan passed the Missouri General Assembly and has been fully adopted as a part of the state’s $30 billion budget for fiscal year 2019-20.
Precythe said that the work facing the department is far from over. Other changes in the works, according to Pojmann, include adopting a risk assessment tool to assess the mental health and other needs of offenders, expanding of a crisis intervention team training to de-escalate tense situations and reducing the prison population via the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
“Let’s get this first pay plan, let’s take a breath and then figure what do we do next and how are we going to accomplish that,” Precythe said.
Rep. Shane Roden, R-Cedar Hill, who chairs the Committee for Corrections and Public Institutions, said the state is on the right track when it comes to the pay plan.
“With the criminal code revisions, we don’t have as many prisoners as we did five years ago,” he said. “We are starting to see the downward trend that will probably level out; my guess is somewhere between 29,000 to 30,000 inmates at any given time,” Roden said.
Gross, on the other hand, is far less optimistic about the pay plan making a long-term difference in the Missouri prison system.
“It will help a little bit, probably,” Gross said. “Is it going to retain staff for any length of time? No, probably not.
“There’s simply not enough money. They’re so grossly underpaid that it really doesn’t make up the difference.”
This story was produced by students in a spring 2019 investigative reporting class at the MU School of Journalism taught by associate professor Sara Shipley Hiles.