Prison Broke, Part 4: As legislators investigate the DOC, the lawsuits keep coming

Rep. Paul Fitzwater, chairman of the Missouri House of Representatives’ Corrections Committee, which oversees the state’s prison system, says that group plans to make major policy changes this legislative session regarding the treatment of prison employees.

Fitzwater tells The Pitch that the overhaul is a direct result of an article the newspaper published in November regarding widespread discrimination and sexual harassment of prison guards by their supervisors and colleagues.

Fitzwater, a Potosi Republican, says he and other elected officials had no knowledge of employee mistreatment, or the millions of dollars the state was paying to victims, until November 23, when the story was published.

“We were kept in the dark,” Fitzwater says. “I got a message I needed to read The Pitch. I got online, and my mouth dropped. I called [another corrections committee member] and said, ‘Have you read The Pitch article?’ ”

The complaints of discrimination cover two decades and involve prisons throughout the state, The Pitch found. In just the past five years, the state has been ordered to pay $7.6 million, including $4 million in 2016 alone, in lawsuit settlements and jury awards. More than 30 lawsuits are pending, and dozens more are expected to be filed.

Elected officials at the time of the story, then-Gov. Jay Nixon and then–Attorney General Kris Koster, who handled the lawsuits, as well as corrections director George Lombardi, have refused several requests for interviews.

Lombardi announced his resignation about three weeks after the story was published.

Gov. Eric Greitens said last month that the state’s prison system needed to be fixed.

“Missouri’s Department of Corrections is broken, and that puts public safety at risk,” Greitens said. “Our corrections officers struggle in a culture of harassment and neglect, in a department with low morale and shockingly high turnover.”

Greitens quickly picked Anne L. Precythe, the pardons and parole director for the North Carolina prison system, as his nominee to replace Lombardi, charging her with cleaning up the corruption.

Precythe has already begun work in Jefferson City, meeting with legislators, including Fitzwater, and the wardens she is now overseeing, according to Fitzwater and several others.

Additionally, an investigation, announced by the speaker of the House in December, is under way. Rep. Todd Richardson’s staff has been interviewing employees around the state, sources say, and there is discussion that a special joint committee of both chambers will conduct the investigation. Hearings are expected.

A state audit into into the legal expense fund is ongoing, and a report is expected early this summer, Missouri auditor Nicole Galloway has said.

While Fitzwater has said that he was unaware of the problems, The Pitch has received several calls and emails from corrections employees who claim to have spoken with him and other legislators about the department’s patterns of mistreatment. Some employees say they complained directly to Fitzwater because he was the House corrections committee chairman.

“Their response was, we are going to have to talk to Mr. Lombardi and see what is going on,” says Sherry Fish, who is a guard at the Bonne Terre Prison and a Missouri Corrections Officers Association representative. “They absolutely knew about some of this.”

Fitzwater has told The Pitch that Lombardi failed to report to him and the committee about the number of lawsuits, and the amount of money being paid to victims. But he acknowledges that he was aware of employee complaints to the corrections committee and says these could have been handled better. 

Fitzwater says one problem is that the corrections committee doesn’t have personnel to handle complaints or to investigate them. So when a complaint was received, he says, he would send it to Lombardi — who, Fitzwater adds, blamed complainers as “disgruntled employees.”

That meant the department was policing itself, Fitzwater says.

“We would ask the department to look into it, which meant they were policing themselves,” he says. “They would come back and say everything was hunky-dory. This is something that is going to change.”

When Jonathan Griggs went to work for the Eastern Missouri Correctional Center, near St. Louis, in 2013, he had spent four years working in a prison in Kentucky and served a short stint in the military. But that did not prepare him for the corruption that he soon faced at the Missouri prison, Griggs told The Pitch recently.

Griggs, who was fired and has a lawsuit against the department pending in St. Louis County Circuit Court, said he got into trouble when he reported numerous activities that violated prison policies and possibly state laws, including gang activity, officers smuggling in drugs, and mistreatment of other employees.

A letter Griggs wrote to Rep. Fitzwater in January 2014, when his complaints to prison officials had been ignored, offers more detail: “I have seen coverups of suspected crimes, extreme staff misconduct, improper handling of dangerous contraband, exposure of officers to hazardous substances. … The amount of illegal drugs within this institution is mind-boggling,” wrote Griggs, who was assigned to the gang task force. The letter continues: “Drug reports were mishandled, officers briefs ignored, or not reported, or not forwarded for prosecution.”

Griggs’ letter to Fitzwater says that, in one case, two offenders appeared to be under the influence. He searched their cell and seized a narcotic, highly addictive pain pill. Griggs writes that he followed procedure, filed a report and turned over the narcotic, but nothing happened; the inmates remained in general population.

Griggs’ lawsuit charges that prison staff failed to report policy violations in many cases, including instances of covered-up crimes, officers who had been reported as suspected of illegal drug activity, and drug smuggling.

Griggs tells The Pitch that he reported five officers for smuggling drugs into the prison; the officers were never charged, he says.

“They just fired them and got them out the door,” Griggs says. “In Kentucky, the state police get involved, put them in handcuffs and take them to the county jail and they get prosecuted.”

Missouri prison policy requires employees “to immediately report any misconduct … through the appropriate chain of command,” the lawsuit states.

In January 2014, Griggs reported gang activity and discovered heroin and other drugs that had been smuggled into the prison. He was told to ignore it, the lawsuit states.

Griggs tells The Pitch that it was after that episode that he began a conversation with Fitzwater by telephone about the problems at the prison. He and Fitzwater exchanged several emails, Griggs says, and the two met in Jefferson City for a more detailed conversation. While there, Griggs says, he tried unsuccessfully to see Lombardi.

A month later, Griggs says, his supervisors accused him of dealing drugs in the prison, and he was removed from his position as a gang task-force officer. No evidence was provided, however, and no charges were filed.

In June, Griggs says, two large inmates attacked him with a knife; he says he managed to fight them off without suffering serious injury.

“Some supernatural being kept me alive,” Griggs says. “I said, ‘Jesus walks with me,’ ” and said a prayer.

His supervisors reported the fight and Griggs’ reaction to Warden Jennifer Sachse, and soon he found himself under investigation for being a “religious fanatic.” Sachse suggested he receive a mental evaluation.

In July, according to the lawsuit, Griggs was attacked by a Muslim inmate, and afterward searched his cell and discovered what appeared to be bomb-making recipes and a notebook containing the names of known terrorists. Griggs confiscated the notebook and turned it over to the St. Louis County Police Department, according to prison policy, the lawsuit states.

But a few days later, Sachse accused Griggs of stealing the notebook and placed him on leave. In August 2014, Griggs was fired. 

Griggs’ lawsuit — filed by his attorney, Matthew Hill Hearne, of Clayton — accuses the corrections department of religious discrimination and wrongful discharge. The lawsuit asks for an award of punitive damages of not less than $100,000.

The week after The Pitch’s article was published in November, Rep. Todd Richardson called Griggs and discussed what had happened to him, Griggs told a reporter. Griggs said he talked with the House speaker for about 20 minutes. Richardson assured Griggs that an investigation was under way, he said.

Griggs is now a criminal justice instructor for McAfee Institute, a private company that provides training in cyber investigations and deception detection.

For the problems Griggs says he experienced, the state doesn’t pay its prison employees enough.

“They buy you for $30,000 a year, and they keep you a slave and they abuse you,” he says. 

The prison in Bonne Terre is notorious for mistreating employees, several current and former corrections officers tell The Pitch.

“Prison Broke,” The Pitch’s story about discrimination and retaliation in Missouri prisons, reported on a lawsuit filed by Lashonda Reid. The lawsuit revealed that sexist and racist statements by supervisors and co-workers were commonplace. Women often were called names — “nigger,” “sexual chocolate,” “Tijuana crack whore,” “cunt” and “bitch,” according to the lawsuit.

Then-Maj. Maurice Guerin, one of Reid’s supervisors, said in sworn testimony that racial jokes and slurs weren’t isolated taunts directed only at Reid and her friend. “It’s the American Way,” Guerin said.

The state was ordered to pay Reid $166,000. Guerin retired a couple of years later, and another of Reid’s supervisors also left the prison. 

But Reid’s direct supervisor, Sgt. David Vandergriff, still works at the prison, has been promoted twice and is now a major.

And problems continue to roil the employees.

Sean Owen, who quit his job in Bonne Terre in 2015, says if an employee is not part of the “good-ol’-boy club,” life can be difficult.

“Corruption is common, everyday stuff,” says Owen, who worked for the department for 12 years and is now in construction. “I had a nice, cushy job and good days off, but hated the place so much I quit.”

Owen says he once applied for time off to observe a holiday but was turned down. A friend on staff, whom Owen says was a member of the “inner circle,” got the time off without having applied for it and despite having planned to work that day. 

In December 2014, several state representatives, some of whom were corrections committee members — including Fitzwater — met with Bonne Terre prison employees in Farmington to discuss their concerns. The meeting was in an office owned by Rep. Kevin Engler.

Numerous letters had been sent to legislators with complaints detailing the problems, including:

— Sexual harassment and discrimination. The deputy warden Jason Lewis was accused of having close relationships with a number of women. (Lewis was promoted last fall despite the allegations and is now a warden at Southeast Correctional Center.)

— Employees who owned private businesses were conducting that business while on duty.

— Favoritism. Employees were allowed to attend college during their work hours or go to funerals of non-relatives and receive family death compensation pay.

— Top management promoting friends.

In addition, the legislators were presented a photo of a man’s testicles that a lieutenant and a captain had shared on Facebook. Although the men used their home computers to share the photo, offensive jokes about the testicles had been spoken at work. 

Employees who spoke with The Pitch said the meetings weren’t very helpful, and no action was taken.

But Engler, who said he met with Lombardi to talk about the complaints, said the department made a few changes.

“I tried to take care of it,” Engler says. “Some of it wasn’t to their liking. We try to make small victories, but we still have some issues and hopefully we will get those dealt with.”

Engler added that only about 10 employees attended the meeting.

“In the state of Missouri, there are any number of people who are complaining about their work,” Engler says. “That is not an outrageous number of people for the number of people working there.”

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