DOC Harassment Claims Cost Missouri $7.5 Million from 2012 to 2016, Pitch Reports

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SHUTTERSTOCK/ANON WANGKHEEREE
  • SHUTTERSTOCK/Anon Wangkheeree

Harassment at the Missouri Department of Corrections is costing taxpayers — more than $4 million in the first half of 2016 alone. That's according to a stunning expose by the RFT's former sister paper in Kansas City, the Pitch.

The alt-weekly dropped a bombshell of a cover story last Wednesday, one that details a toxic culture endured by some corrections officers — with crude remarks, and even violence, coming not from inmates, but from fellow prison staffers. Reporter Karen Dillon details how the lawsuits have escalated, yet the state keeps paying out without triggering a sense of urgency, much less reform, in Jefferson City.

As Dillon writes,
According to more than 60 lawsuits The Pitch has examined, and interviews with current and former DOC employees, the department is a demeaning, even dangerous place to work. Trial transcripts and depositions from prison workers around the state, including Kansas City, paint a startling picture of repeated and overt sexual comments, groping, and pressure from supervisors and co-workers to have sex. When those advances were rebuffed or reported to higher authorities, threats, retaliation and even physical assaults sometimes followed.

... From the fiscal years 2002 through 2006, the department paid out $340,612 in settlements and judgments, with just $9,597 in 2003 going to satisfy lawsuit judgments and settlements, and none in 2004.

But from 2012 through 2016, settlement payments and judgments exploded to $7,598,611. During the first six months of 2016, the DOC was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims harassed because of sex, religion or disability, as well as to those who faced intimidation and retribution after they filed their suits. A further 33 lawsuits are awaiting trial ...
And the Department of Corrections seems to be avoiding the sort of systemic action that would prevent such problems going forward.
The skyrocketing figures and revolting court records should be turning heads in Jefferson City. But attention has been scant, even as an unobstructed flow of money has left the state’s general fund to pay for the judgments and out-of-court settlements, and punishment for the offenders has not been severe enough to deter further violations.

“The legal expense fund should not be a slush fund to pay millions and millions of dollars for bad behavior,” says Rod T. Chapel Jr., a lawyer with offices in Jefferson City and Kansas City who has worked with the Missouri Human Rights Commission. “I don’t know many places you can engage in that kind of behavior and still be employed. The department says it has zero tolerance, but if you in fact don’t tolerate discrimination and harassment, I don’t know how they [the guards repeatedly named in court documents] could remain in their employment.”

“There seems to be a real defect in the system,” says Jonathan Charles Berns, a St. Louis attorney whose firm has handled at least two DOC-related cases and has a third case pending. “Their attitude is, We are not going to talk to you about this or about fixing the problem. There is no attempt to fix it. There is no acknowledgment that there was wrongdoing or that mistakes were made.”
The magnitude of problems is breathtaking.

“When it comes to employment litigation, it’s my opinion the Department of Corrections was the most morally corrupt organization I ever worked for,” Bill Johnson, a former human relations officer, tells The Pitch.

As anecdotal evidence, the paper goes deep into the story of Debra Hesse, a Kansas City corrections officer who filed several harassment complaints against the department and was later labeled as trouble by her superiors and tormented by coworkers. A co-worker who testified on Hesse's behalf was warned by inmates that she was in danger; at one point, the co-worker appears to have been poisoned. Another Kansas City corrections officer who formally complained of harassment was mysteriously stabbed in the parking lot by an unknown assailant in a ski mask. Her attacker remains at large.

“When three women from the same facility have filed lawsuits and had something happen to them — when your life has been put in danger — it’s not a fluke,” Hesse tells The Pitch.

Hesse has since won a $2 million jury verdict. And while the department commissioned a report to look into allegations of retaliation in cases like hers, Attorney General Chris Koster has been fighting to keep the report secret.

There's more — much more — in the paper's shocking cover story. Read it online here.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com


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