JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The head of Missouri's prison system on Friday announced she's implementing a zero-tolerance policy for managers who fail to properly respond to reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct, a policy change that follows claims of harassments of prison employees and millions of dollars in legal payouts by the state.
"Employees on the front lines should never dread coming to work because of hateful, hurtful behavior from their co-workers," new Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe said in a statement. "Any allegations of improper behavior in the workplace will be swiftly investigated and appropriate sanctions will be administered to true wrongdoers."
Republican Rep. Jim Hansen, of Frankford, praised the policy.
"If they don't have a good reason on why they didn't handle it or didn't report it, then I think that they should be terminated," said Hansen, who is heading a House panel tasked with investigating the agency.
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.
In response, Precythe on Friday said she's creating an Office of Professional Standards "to ensure investigations and employee discipline cases are completed efficiently, fairly, and timely."
She's also shaking up leadership, which she said is "badly needed" at some facilities. She named Matt Sturm deputy department director and replaced the warden and deputy warden at the Kansas City Re-entry Center. Adult Institutions Division Director Dave Dormire is retiring in April, and a new Parole Board chairman — Kenneth Jones — has been appointed.
Precythe said new management is coming to the St. Louis Community Release Center, where an inmate suicide occurred in October. Precythe ordered a review of the incident that she says will lead to sanctions against responsible staff.
To boost morale, Precythe said she's focusing on "sound hiring practices and fair pay that rewards good work."
Precythe met with senior leadership Friday, and said she plans regular meetings with administrators and town halls with other employees.
Hansen, who's heard searing testimony from current and former prison employees, said Precythe's leadership has been well received by some.
"I've had some feedback from employees that they can see a difference," he said. "They can see that change is coming, and some change has already come."