February 27, 2017

Corrections worker: Going to work is ‘walking into hell’

JEFFERSON CITY -- A week after being frustrated by two Department of Corrections officials’ responses to questions about harassment, members of a Missouri House subcommittee heard from two Department employees who described an environment of nepotism, harassment, and retaliation in the state’s prison system.

Travis Case, who is three years away from retiring from the Department, told lawmakers, "You come in every day and the negativity, it’s like you’re walking into hell."

Case works in the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, in its canteen – a store where inmates can purchase items including snacks, drinks, and tobacco products.

He told legislators that prison has seen a high rate of turnover with many veteran staff members leaving – an issue he believes likely exists department-wide. He said morale is low and complained that he believed prison wardens have too much power.

"This came out of a deputy warden’s mouth and I agree with him wholeheartedly," said Case. " ‘We give these wardens the keys to the kingdom and we let them run it however they see fit, and that’s a big problem.’ "

Case was talking to a panel formed to look into the environment in the Corrections system after reports came to light of employee-on-employee harassment and retaliation against those who reported problems. Some cases resulted in lawsuits, some of which the state has settled resulting in millions of dollars in payouts. Other cases are still pending.

Case said the Department’s policies, including its policy regarding harassment, are too vague.

"Missouri supposedly has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and discrimination, but the policies don’t reflect that. The policies are so vague that if you want to fire somebody for sexual harassment or discrimination or retaliation – whatever the case may be – you can do it if you want to, but if you don’t want to you also don’t have to," said Case. "That’s where the favoritism comes in."

The subcommittee also heard from Lieutenant Jason Horn, a corrections officer at the Farmington Correctional Center. Horn read off a litany of suggestions for improvements in the Department, including its handling of harassment.

"Send all claims of … discrimination, harassment, retaliation, to Human Resources. There should not be a choice. No passing the buck," Horn recommended. "If we can have somebody with a nonbiased opinion come in and look at these problems and these issues in a way that they need to be looked at with no choice – with no choice of the warden or anyone else, then I think things would get dealt with a little more appropriately than they do."

Subcommittee members expressed gratitude at the two men for coming to testify. After its previous hearing one panel member said it seemed as though department officials were, "passing the buck," shuffling harassment claims back and forth between departments. Members expressed frustration at the answers they received from the Department’s Inspector General and its Division of Human Resources Director.

Chairman Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) said he wants to hear from more Department employees before the committee prepares its recommendations for changes in Corrections.