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Sexual Harassment Lawsuits, Settlements Rock Missouri Department of Corrections

by Derek Gilna

The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC), roiled by a series of lawsuits and settlements related to workplace sexual harassment of female employees, has been called “dysfunctional” by a special state legislative committee investigating DOC operations. Responding to a report by The Pitch magazine that detailed millions in state payouts to female prison guards who alleged harassment, the legislators were not happy.

According to U.S. News and World Report, “the state spent more than $7.5 million on settlements and judgments between 2012 and 2016 related to the allegations.” As of June 2017 there had been around $100,000 in additional verdicts and settlements, with more cases pending.

“The checks and balances aren’t there,” said state Rep. Bruce Franks. “It really seems like it’s passing the buck.”

Committee Chairmen Rep. Jim Hansen was even blunter: “To me it appears to be a shell game.”

“The ball is getting dropped somewhere,” added state Rep. John McCaherty.

In May 2017, after testimony was presented at hearings across the state regarding sexual harassment within the DOC, the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct recommended that the agency establish a zero-tolerance policy, a 24-hour hotline, random employee drug screens and annual sexual harassment training, as well as a new recruitment policy for supervisors and employee disciplinary changes. It also suggested more “in-depth” management and leadership training for wardens and all prison administrators.

Notwithstanding those recommended reforms, another lawsuit was filed in July 2017 by a nurse at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, who alleged a guard told her on January 20, 2017 that he had a “capture room where he promised to take her, drug her, and rape her.” A supervisor laughed at the allegations, though he reported the guard’s inappropriate comments. The nurse claimed she was subjected to retaliation after she filed a complaint; named as defendants in her suit were the guard, the supervisor and Corizon Health, the medical contractor at the prison.

Even some DOC employees are disgusted by the working conditions they must endure. Farmington Correctional Center Lt. Jason Horn said he would like to see stricter requirements for reporting harassment claims.

“There should not be a choice,” he stated. “No passing the buck.” Morale, he added, was low among employees: “We feel like rusty tools nobody cares about.”

Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe, who was appointed by Governor Eric R. Greitens in December 2016, said dealing with claims of sexual harassment was a top priority.

“We responded to that immediate crisis, and we continue to respond whenever we get complaints,” she said. “We just can’t ignore what our employees are telling us.”

Unlike complaints of sexual harassment and abuse made by prisoners, that is, which are typically treated with skepticism and disbelief by prison officials.

Meanwhile, Dave Dormire, the DOC’s second-in-command, abruptly announced his retirement effective April 1, 2017, shortly after The Pitch “revealed he may have been deceptive during internal investigations of discrimination and retaliation several years ago,” the magazine reported.

One of those investigations involved two nurses employed at the Jefferson City Correctional Center – Susan Nurnberg and Becky Hunt – who filed suit, claiming they had been subjected to sexual harassment and retaliation. A jury awarded them $280,000. 

Sources: www.usnews.com, www.sttoday.com, www.fultonsun.com, www.komu.com, www.missourinet.com, www.apnews.com, www.newstribune.com, The Pitch

 

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