Ever since I left my teaching job at the Missouri Department of Corrections, I have worked hard to reform the system. I’ve written books, written blogs, and now have testified in front of a House of Representatives subcommittee. I realize many people don’t want to think about prison. In fact, there are some who enjoy the thought of others being punished and who rejoice in dysfunction inside the prison system. Somewhere in our Puritanical spirit, it feels good to know someone who made a mistake is being punished.
However, whether you are sympathetic to inmates or not is a separate issue from what has been happening inside the Department of Corrections. Finally, thanks to articles by The Pitch, a Kansas City area news outlet, the dark secrets of the retaliation, harassment, and violence within the department are coming to light. This isn’t inmate-on-inmate abuse. This isn’t staff-on-inmate abuse. This is staff-on-staff abuse that has festered within the Missouri prison system for decades.
Good employees have been harassed and threatened out of the system, leaving the power of the department in the hands of people whose behavior more closely resembles the inmates than the “good guy” image they want the general public to have of them. In some instances, good people are forced out because they witness or uncover corruption. Other times, getting rid of good people is seen as entertainment. In an already dangerous situation, that’s just plain sick. It’s been happening at prison facilities across our state for a long, long time.
Some employees are so disgusted by the harassment and dirty tactics that, once they leave the DOC, they don’t even want to think about the experience. They shove it to the back of their minds, chalk it up as a traumatic time, and do everything they can to keep prison out of their new lives.
Some former employees do try to take action against the department that made their lives hell. Attorneys are hesitant to take on cases against the state. A fight that big requires a lot of resources, and usually small law firms want the victim to pay the cost of doing legal battle upfront. Since many victims of the system are now without work, are struggling to keep their heads above water, and are emotionally and physically drained by the experience, they can’t afford the legal fees. They slip away and their stories are never heard. The abuse goes unpunished.
Some reach out to legislators or to higher ups in the Department of Corrections thinking that someone will listen to their plight. I’ve spoken with far too many former employees who tired of slammed doors or of promises of investigations disappearing as quickly as mist on a hot summer day. When you have done everything you think you can do and no one listens; no one cares; it’s easy to let defeat become the overwhelming emotion you carry forward.
Current employees are threatened and sometimes the threats are a matter of life and death. One of The Pitch articles tells of an employee who was poisoned at work. Another tells of an employee who was cornered by two inmates wielding knives who, having managed to survive the encounter, was targeted as being a “religious fanatic.” Why a religious fanatic? Because when talking to prison officials about his near-death experience he said, “Jesus was with me.” He soon found out other employees were behind the attack on him by those inmates. These are documented instances.
Death threats made to former employees and their loved ones; vehicle tampering; break-ins at their houses; and threatening and harassing phone calls made in the middle of the night are real. This isn’t some suspense movie. This is the living hell of good people who saw too much or spoke too loudly about the corruption within the Missouri prison system. The fear and intimidation are intended to keep good people silent.
The Missouri Speaker of the House, Todd Richardson, in light of the articles surfacing in The Pitch, created a subcommittee to investigate the corruption. The Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct was born. For the first time, the state legislature began a close look into the cancer that pervades the DOC.
On March 2, 2017, I drove to Jefferson City to testify before the committee. I was the second of two witnesses on that date. I was less than impressed by the testimony of the gentleman who spoke before I did. The first witness, a caseworker named Kevin Schrum who currently works for the DOC, testified that we really can’t blame corrections officers for behaving badly because they are around the “criminal element” all day long. He claimed that employees were used to being harsh with inmates, so they treated their coworkers and subordinates harshly too. In other words, it’s the fault of the inmates that a woman was poisoned, that employees have been set up to be assaulted or killed, that threatening phone calls have been made in the middle of the night? Those screaming that corrections officers deserve a raise because they are professionals are supposedly so influenced by the inmates they oversee that they just can’t help themselves? I don’t buy it.
After thanking the subcommittee for the opportunity to speak, I addressed that troubling statement made by Mr. Schrum. I explained that, as a public school teacher of twenty-four years, I am the authority figure in my classroom. That doesn’t mean I have the right to treat my coworkers as though they are children in my class who need to be told what to do. It’s called professionalism. Furthermore, as I looked committee members in the eye, I said, “It’s difficult to look at a criminal and say ‘stop being a criminal’ when you are acting like a criminal yourself.” Everyone sees the corruption, not just the staff members. The inmates see it happening too. How do you tell an inmate that they need to improve if you are behaving like a criminal yourself? It’s not a good enough excuse to say “the inmates were a bad influence on me as a professional–who is demanding higher pay.”
Another troubling comment by Mr. Schrum was, “The transfer process should be made easier. That way if an employee finds himself in a ‘bad spot’ he can transfer more easily to another facility.” This one irks me. Why should the good employee have to uproot himself/herself to move to another part of the state because of retaliation or intimidation in their current position? Isn’t the entire point of this investigation to stop the corruption? Clean up the corruption where it exists instead of making victims uproot themselves and their families.
During my testimony, I named names and referred to specific instances of corruption and abuse. I told of my early months at the prison when my life was threatened non-stop by an inmate who had nothing to lose. I requested that he be transferred and I never even got a response from the administration. Finally, after the situation continued to escalate, I spoke (with the approval of my direct supervisor, Chris Jackson) with one of the instructors I trusted at the Training Academy in Jefferson City. The day after that conversation, I was called into Chris’s office where I was told he had just gotten off the phone with the wardens, and they weren’t happy. The message they wanted passed on to me was, “If you ever go out-of-house again, it’s going to be your job.” Welcome to the DOC.
I went on to detail instances of bullying, intimidation, and harassment. I did make it clear to the committee, however, that while there is sexual harassment that occurs at the prisons, that is not the extent of the corruption. It is much wider and deeper than sexual harassment alone. There are many ways good employees are mistreated.
I explained how after having the school secretary, Cindy Osman, tell my friend and coworker, “Why don’t you just buy her a dildo?!”–while pointing at me–that I talked to the new acting supervisor, David Pershing, about her remarks. He told me, “Just let this go. Don’t report her. She’s worked in this system for a long time and if you complain it’s going to be you who loses your job, not her.” When I asked if he would speak with her he said, “No! I’m not going to talk with her. I don’t want her to make my life hell.” I then told the legislators that I hadn’t pursued reporting harassment I faced because, “…if the department didn’t care if my life was being threatened, why should I think they would care that someone said something ugly to me?”
I told about the major who blackmailed the entire education staff, telling us that if we chose to complain about him, we could…but we should know that he had been collecting damning information about each and every one of us and if we complained he would use it against us. His name was Anthony Williams. Six months after I left the prison, he was arrested on drug charges by an outside drug task force. He is a perfect example of the power-hungry criminal acting under the guise of being the “good guy” that has flourished for far too long within a department we as citizens depend upon to keep us safe.
I left the committee members copies of blogs I have written over the past two years detailing one bad act after another in different facilities. I gave them an eight-page single-spaced report giving greater depth to what I testified to. I gave them copies of chapters from my book, Bank Notes, explaining to them that I had used fictitious names in the book at the insistence of my literary agent but that the real names were provided in my testimony and in my report.
Three of the five subcommittee members made a point of coming to me with handshakes and thanks for being willing to come forward. They appreciated the specifics I gave. It was important to be specific and to name names. Corruption in the Department of Corrections isn’t simply a dark blanket that covers a secretive environment of fear and intimidation. The corruption is personal. It happens to people and attempts to destroy them in a hundred different ways. It’s time to open our eyes as a state and as a society and say, “Enough is enough.” No longer are we willing to give a pass to a system that eats its own in a power hungry game of intimidation and deceit.