Prison Broke: The Missouri Department of Corrections can’t escape its own worst habits
Each day, as she prepared herself to work another shift at the Missouri Department of Corrections prison, Lashonda Reid knew to expect one thing.
It would be bad.
Reid had been called a “nigger,” a “token nigger,” “sexual chocolate.” She had been complimented on her lips — made for “sucking dick.”
Maybe this would be one of the days when the psyche-destroying talk was trained on her workmate and friend — the Hispanic woman who’d been called a “Tijuana crack whore,” a “wetback,” a “fence cutter.” But Reid dreaded that, too.
And her dread now curdled into fear because these words had come not from the inmates she guarded, but from fellow DOC staffers — including some who supervised her.
She had endured it for for two years. She had a child to support. She had no husband to help. It was an impossible job.
But it was a job. She stayed. She took the abuse. Until her doctor told her, “If you stay there, they are going to kill you.”
Awakened by this warning, Reid quit — then sued the department and won $166,000 for humiliation, violations of her civil rights, and retribution for having filed a complaint.
And she turns out not to have been alone.
One of Reid’s bosses, Maj. Maurice Guerin, said in sworn testimony in her case that the racial jokes and slurs weren’t isolated taunts directed only at Reid and her friend. “It’s the American way,” he said.
It is, at least, the way in Missouri.
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.
And cleaning up after this behavior is costing the state’s taxpayers millions of dollars as lawsuits are settled or lost.
It hasn’t always been this way. 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 more are pending approval from the Missouri Commission on Human Rights to proceed to court.
Lawsuits, court transcripts and sources indicate that racial and gender epithets at a number of prisons occur daily, and that male employees, including supervisors, have commonly referred to female employees as “bitches,” “whores” and “cunts”; have rubbed their groins against female guards, slapped women’s buttocks and commented on their breasts; and have commented about their wives’ and girlfriend’s sexual prowess or lack thereof in front of other employees, including women. One guard said his wife gave “lousy blowjobs,” and inquired about a co-worker’s abilities in that area. Another guard, in front of female co-workers, announced that his wife’s “pussy quivers during sex.”
In some cases, according to records, supervisors have dangled promises of good evaluations and advancements in exchange for sexual favors. A sergeant at a Cameron prison admitted to trying to have sex with at least a dozen co-workers. His usual come-on was “Let’s be lovers.” He told one woman under his direct supervision that he could make sure she had the correct answers to an interview test. A couple of months later, after two sexual encounters, she got the answers, passed and was advanced, according to court records.
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.”
Brendan Donelon, a Kansas City lawyer, says that harassment will not be eliminated until the punishment fits the crime. Donelon was one of several lawyers who warned the department in 2004 that if officials did not fix the problems, the number of lawsuits could escalate.
“It’s public money … but nobody has anything vested,” Donelon says. “A private company would say, ‘Holy crap! It’s going to cost us a lot. It’s going to affect our image. We’ve got to put this behavior out of action and try to fix it.’
“You have to start at the top. This is all happening on their watch.”
But if Missouri corrections officials and the politicians who oversee them have a solution, they are keeping it to themselves. Over the past two months, The Pitch has made a dozen requests to speak with more than 20 DOC officials and supervisors. All have been denied, including multiple requests to George Lombardi, who was appointed director of the DOC by Gov. Jay Nixon in 2008, and who prior to that was in charge of employee discipline for 18 years.
Gary Gross, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association in Jefferson City, tells The Pitch that Lombardi and the DOC have known about these cases for years but refused to address their causes.
“The department — it has not been properly run in a long time,” Gross says. “This whole deal could have been fixed, but they chose not to do it.”
In recent months, Gross says, he has spoken to legislators about the amount of money being spent on the lawsuits. “They weren’t aware of it,” he says. “They were really surprised that was going on.”
Gross points out another factor: Missouri corrections officers are the lowest-paid in the country. As he puts it, “You can pay all these multimillion-dollar lawsuits, but you can’t give raises?”
MUM’S THE WORD
The document the department uses to settle some of the lawsuits out of court presents some perplexing leaps of logic.
Basically, if an employee files a lawsuit, the state sometimes offers money — in some cases as much as a half-million dollars — to make the suit disappear. The standard agreement is called the “General Release Agreement and Waiver of All Claims.” In that document, the state agrees it will give the victim a monetary payment in return for a statement that the claimed discrimination, harassment or retaliation never happened — in essence, a disavowal of sworn testimony.
At the same time, the state’s agreement permits the department to ignore evidence of wrongdoing and the chance to fix many of the problems, leaving some of the bad actors employed by the department.
The result is beneficial to almost everyone involved — except the taxpayers of the state, who are footing the often-substantial bills.
“The Department and its employees specifically disclaim any wrongdoing and maintain that their actions were justified under both the law and internal policies,” say several settlement agreements obtained by The Pitch through Missouri open-records laws.
In addition, the state includes a secrecy clause in many of the agreements.
The clause that is in many standard department settlements prohibits the victims and their attorneys from revealing details of the agreement, including how much money was paid.
But the state is under no such burden.
Indeed, the department would violate state law if it refused to release that information.
Anybody in the United States can make an open-records request and receive the settlement agreement and the amount of the settlement. The records filed in the court cases, detailing the bad behavior, are also public.
When all the information in a settlement is a public record, why does the state insist upon the secrecy clause?
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s office has refused numerous requests to explain this tactic.
The case of Michelle Pickens, a corrections officer who began working at the Kansas City prison in 2008, is a good illustration of why it doesn’t make sense.
In her lawsuit, filed in 2014, Pickens said she was sexually harassed by Lazoros Kindelan for several years. She reported it to her supervisors, but, documents say, “nothing was ever done about it.”
Kindelan, according to Pickens’ petition, made several attempts to have sex with Pickens, and sent her photos of his penis; he also tried to kiss her in the prison parking lot. Once, the petition says, he called her and said, “Pickens, it’s been four years, when are you going to let me hit that?”
Last November, Pickens, on the advice of her attorney, David Lunceford, agreed to a settlement. For $274,000, she signed papers saying the department and Kindelan had done nothing wrong. She also promised to keep the settlement confidential and to “not communicate with anyone associated with any media.” The only statement she is allowed to make about her case is “The matter has been resolved,” according to the agreement. That agreement extends to her children and other family members and heirs.
The Pitch obtained the information about the case through a state open-records request, then contacted Pickens. She did not respond to text and e-mail messages asking for comment. Through a friend, she said she could not comment about her case because of the agreement; she feared that if she violated the agreement, she would have to repay the money.
The Pitch contacted several victims in other cases that were settled, and their responses were the same: They could not talk because of the agreement, and they feared having to forfeit settlement payments if they spoke.
Gross, with the corrections officers association, describes the state’s request for secrecy as “one of the tricks the department likes to pull.”
“The DOC is notorious for hiding things,” adds Gross, who began working at the DOC in 1984. “They are trying to shield themselves from publicity, but they are shielding themselves from the truth.”
One person willing to talk about the inner workings of the DOC is Bill Johnson, a 15-year department employee.
Before his retirement in 2014, Johnson worked as one of the department’s human-relations officers. His job was to investigate complaints and help determine whether an employee had violated policy. But he had no input on discipline. That was left to the director of adult services, second in command in Jefferson City.
He also testified at trials involving lawsuits against the department.
Eventually, Johnson himself felt the ire of the department. According to court records, Johnson says he was fired for, among other things, giving truthful testimony in a trial that was not helpful to the department. He filed a successful lawsuit to be reinstated to his job, and won $20,000.
“When it comes to employment litigation, it’s my opinion the Department of Corrections was the most morally corrupt organization I ever worked for,” Johnson tells The Pitch.
“Complain and you were targeted,” he says. “The philosophy was, as long as an employee didn’t step outside the agency we helped them. But the minute they stepped out and filed a lawsuit … we were supposed to do a 180-degree turn and just lie. That literally was the mentality of the department if you tried to sue us. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t say anything because my ass would be in the wringer.”
Johnson said that the Missouri Attorney General’s office, saddled with defending the Department of Corrections in every such lawsuit, has mishandled the escalating number of cases in which large damages have been awarded.
“These giant judgments are simply because the AG’s office didn’t come to the DOC and say, ‘What are you guys doing? Why are we having all these cases?’ ” Johnson says. “They have a big pot of money [in the general fund] to defend themselves. As long as it doesn’t come out of the DOC budget, why should the DOC care?”
Employees at the prison just south of the Missouri River, in Kansas City’s West Bottoms, have filed more than a dozen lawsuits in recent years. Earlier this year, a jury awarded a guard almost $2 million in one case.
A look at several cases at the Kansas City facility provides a disturbing cross-section of what happens when Missouri DOC employees buck the system. Three employees, two who filed lawsuits against the Kansas City prison and a third who won a jury verdict, have faced threats to their lives this year.
In January, Debra Hesse, who has worked as a corrections officer in Kansas City and in Tipton, won the jury verdict — almost $2 million — in a discrimination lawsuit. The jury was so troubled by the way the department had treated her that it asked to meet with her after the trial to applaud her courage in coming forward, Hesse says. (And it was in the wake of her trial victory that Hesse contacted me to outline her case and to provide information leading to the records searches reported in this story.)
Hesse testified that, while working in the Tipton prison, she had filed several complaints of abuse and harassment, angering supervisors. One evening, she was alone at her desk in a housing unit when Lt. Daniel R. Coulter came up the stairs and passed her desk. She was writing a report when, she testified, her chair slammed into her desk, snapping her head backward and leaving a welt across her chest. Coulter was holding the back of her chair, Hesse told the jury.
Eventually, she got a transfer to the Kansas City prison. A letter to the warden there, from Dave Dormier, who oversees the state’s 21 correctional centers, warned that she was trouble, she said. For her part, Hesse says she was warned by a supervisor that she just needed to “sit back and go with the flow.”
Last year, Kansas City prison employees were preparing for the building to become a minimum-security facility. But Hesse noticed several problems, including the fact that many of the security cameras didn’t work or were not pointed in the right direction. When she spoke up at a meeting, a supervisor who was at the podium yelled at her, “Shut your mouth, Hesse,” she said.
Hesse was battling bladder cancer when she was ordered to work alone at a post where another guard would have to relieve her if she needed to take a bathroom break. Often, a substitute took hours to arrive. Hesse, who could have been fired had she left her post, said she brought extra uniforms to work to change into, knowing she might wet herself.
Last December, about a month before her civil trial was set to begin, someone shot out the driver’s-side window of her car as she pulled out of the parking lot at work. Kansas City police investigated, but no arrest was made.
Hesse’s co-worker Tina Gallego testified at Hesse’s trial in January. She told the jury that it was commonplace for male employees to call women “cunts, whores and other derogatory names” and that retaliation to complaints was the norm.
When Gallego returned to work after the Hesse trial, she had to meet with an investigator and tell him specific details of her testimony. Gallego told the investigator, as she had reported to the jury, that she she had complained to her supervisors about having been called a “cunt” and a “whore.” She said she’d heard other female officers called those and other names. She said no one had investigated her complaints.
Some of those complaints included a male officer telling her she would “look good in pasties” while he held his hands up in front of her breasts. She also “was lifted into an unwanted hug by a male officer,” her petition said.
When she returned to work, many of her supervisors and co-workers ostracized her, glared at her or looked down when she passed them by in the hallway.
In late January just after Hesse’s trial, inmates told Gallego that her life was in danger. One inmate told her, she says, that three guards were “pissed” and that she should “watch her back.”
The department placed Gallego and Hesse, who is still considered a department employee, on paid leave.
After an investigation into the alleged threats, the department fired two corrections officers; a third quit.
Both Hesse and Gallego said the three officers were “patsies” and that the supervisors who were involved were not disciplined. At least two supervisors to whom Hesse and Gallego reported have since been promoted.
Gallego was told to report back to work on August 1. On the job again, she received a cool reception. Her supervisors refused to give her keys to let inmates in and out of cells, making her job “very dangerous and difficult,” her petition reads. She also was locked out of the computer system and her e-mail account.
Nine days after returning to work, she opened a can of soda and left it on her desk when she was summoned to meet with a supervisor, who ordered her to work an additional eight hours that day.
When Gallego returned to her desk, she took a drink of the soda, thought it tasted funny and threw it out, according to her petition. Within a couple of hours, she started vomiting, her legs swelled, and a severe rash broke out on her legs and body. She was sent home.
After three days, she was still vomiting and still had the rash. Her skin began peeling.
Gallego went to her doctor, who ran a series of tests and determined, according to court records, that “the symptoms were not consistent with a virus or stomach illness but were consistent with ‘poisoning.’ ”
“She [the doctor] took my hand and said, ‘Honey, there is no doubt: You were poisoned,’ ” Gallego says in her petition. “I was already scared, but that’s when I faced the reality. This is it. I can’t go back there.”
Gallego filed a lawsuit in September and is now on leave without pay. No trial date has been set. She still fears retaliation and believes she is being watched and followed. She has no money to pay rent and utilities and fears she may soon be evicted.
Gallego’s attorney, David Lunceford, says she cannot quit her job because of the lawsuit. And she hasn’t been fired, so she can’t claim unemployment benefits. She can’t look for a job outside the state. Lunceford suggested she apply for work at other Missouri state agencies. She says she has filled out applications for 23 state jobs with no success.
Gallego, who was making $26,000 a year, says this is not how she thought her career would go.
“When I took my job, I was very proud,” she says. “I was proud to wear blue. I was proud to wear my badge. I believed in justice. I believed in upholding the law. I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t view the world the same. How do you do this to somebody who is just telling the truth?”
Michelle Findley was a Kansas City prison guard when she was stabbed in the prison parking lot while taking a break this past summer — three months after she had filed a harassment lawsuit against the department.
Her suit, filed in March, contends that one male co-worker showed her a picture of a penis; another man told her his wife had a “tight pussy.” Male employees said Findley had “a dick” or wore a “strap-on,” and made fun of her short haircut. She also was referred to as a “carpet muncher.”
In July, Findley, who was working a night shift, was taking a break in the parking lot when someone wearing a black ski mask came up from behind and began stabbing her. She fought off her attacker but suffered wounds in her back and in one thigh and defensive cuts to both her forearms and the right side of her face, according to a Kansas City police report. Her assailant has not been caught.
Findley, who makes $28,000 a year, was allowed to transfer to the Boonville prison. Her trial isn’t scheduled until January 2018. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Hesse believes the three incidents are related and show a frightening pattern.
“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 says.
Hesse, who is now 60 years old, will probably have to wait about two years to get her jury award. The department is appealing the case, and if the judgment is against the state, attorneys will likely appeal to the Supreme Court, as they have done without too much success in the past. Even as the state proceeds with its appeal, it has tried to settle with her, she says.
Hesse fears returning to work and filed a second complaint with the Missouri Human Rights Commission in October, asking the agency for permission to sue the department again for retaliation.
“I believe that I have been asked to come back to work so that I can again be put in harm’s way,” the complaint reads. “The DOC cannot guarantee my safety”
Department officials would not comment.
THE MOLLOY REPORT
When both Gallego and Hesse said their lives had been threatened after the trial, their attorney David Lunceford requested that the department conduct an investigation “because Ms. Hesse and Ms. Gallego felt uncomfortable cooperating with the DOC investigators,” a motion by the state reads.
The department hired Ann Molloy, a Kansas City lawyer, to independently investigate the allegations of retaliation. Molloy finished the report in July, and the state later paid her $12,650.
Since then, the state has battled to keep secret the 19-page report.
According to a motion filed by Attorney General Koster, the report contains allegations of discrimination or harassment by several employees, as well as summaries of interviews with management and steps that the department has taken to address the allegations.
Koster argued the report should be sealed.
Lunceford countered with a motion arguing that the report should be open. To keep the report secret violates the state’s Sunshine law, Lunceford argued.
“The Molloy Report is an open record subject to full public disclosure and to shroud it in a cloak of confidentiality runs afoul of Missouri statutory and case law,” Lunceford wrote in his brief. “Defendant has not introduced a scintilla of evidence to overcome the substantial body of law which requires the open disclosure of the Molloy Report.
Jackson County Circuit Judge James Dale Youngs ordered the file unsealed, writing: “The court determines the defendant has failed to meet its burden to rebut the presumption of openness afforded to public records such as this report.”
Despite the ruling, the state has refused several requests from The Pitch to release the report. To get it, another lawsuit will have to be filed.
Youngs says he will not comment further about his order.
The following are summaries of some of the cases The Pitch uncovered:
Susan Hays worked at the Farmington Correctional Center, 75 miles southwest of St. Louis, as an entry-level corrections officer. She alleges in a lawsuit filed last year that a male co-worker there, Dwight Yancy, sexually harassed her and other female employees on a regular basis.
The lawsuit contends that Yancy sent Hays pictures of what he said was his penis and talked about its size. He discussed women he claimed to have had sex with and described the sexual acts they supposedly had performed. He told Hays that her daughter was attractive and that he had spent the night with her. He mimed sexual acts on objects and shadows and pretended to be masturbating when Hays would open her mouth to yawn.
At one point, Hays says in her lawsuit, he unzipped his fly and stuck his finger through the opening to simulate a penis. He also would use liquid soap on his hands to simulate semen, Hays said.
Hayes wasn’t the only female worker Yancy harassed, according to the lawsuit. He told another female colleague that she “owed him a blow job because he had loaned her a lighter.”
Hays says in the lawsuit that some of Yancy’s alleged transgressions occurred in front of his direct supervisor, Timothy Chronister, and that she repeatedly complained to Chronister about Yancy’s harassment. Chronister, she says in the suit, took no action.
Hays left the department in May. Yancy still works for the DOC and last year made $32,000. No trial date has been set.
When Roberta Schaar reported that she was being sexually harassed by a male supervisor, officials at the Bowling Green prison told her she would have to “deal with being uncomfortable around him.”
That bit of management wisdom cost taxpayers $1.5 million.
After being assaulted and battered, Schaar filed a lawsuit in Lincoln County Circuit Court (60 miles northwest of St. Louis), and in 2010 a jury awarded her $1.5 million in actual and punitive damages.
But it would be three more years before the state paid her the $1 million in punitive damages.
Schaar was a corrections officer for the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. Sgt. Berdell Board, her suprivisor, often discussed his sexual anatomy with Schaar, according to the lawsuit, and would brush his forearm against her breast. Once, when she was kneeling down, Board remarked, “That’s the position you are good at,” her petition reads.
When Schaar complained, prison management “failed to conduct a proper investigation” and did not discipline Board. Schaar then filed a complaint with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, an indication that she planned to sue.
Soon, Board and others began a retaliation campaign, according to the petition.
One day, Board and another guard, Michael Schultz, came into her work area.
Shultz raised his fist and shook it at Schaar, according to the petition. He then hit her in the arm with his fist. Schaar asked Schultz to move out of her way three times, but he refused. He then grabbed her by the arm of her coat and dragged her across the room, the petition says.
“The assault was really bizarre,” says Jerome J. Dobson, Schaar’s attorney in St. Louis. “It came out of the blue. It almost seemed random. But she had been making complaints, so it seemed related to that.”
In 2010, a jury awarded Schaar almost $1 million in punitive damages and almost $300,000 in actual damages. The judge tacked on another $200,000 in legal fees, for a total of $1.5 million.
But it would be awhile before Schaar saw her money. First the state appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, but lost; then it appealed to the Supreme Court, and lost again.
In December 2011, the state issued a check for $591,797, which included an interest payment of $100,000. That money paid the actual damages and legal fees but not the $1 million for punitive damages.
Eventually, Schaar’s attorneys filed another lawsuit to recover the money. The judge in that case found that the state had “improperly” withheld the money and ordered the state to pay up, including interest and legal fees.
The state paid $1.83 million, $300,000 more than the original jury award.
Felicia Mitchell’s lawsuit involves sexual harassment and poisoning.
Mitchell was a probation and parole officer in Caruthersville. Her lawsuit filed in 2012 alleges the department violated the Missouri Human Rights Act by allowing sexual discrimination and retaliation.
One of Mitchell’s supervisors was district administrator John Lane, who often made comments about her breasts and other women’s breasts, Mitchell alleged.
After Mitchell filed a complaint, Lane told her that another employee also had filed a complaint. But he told her she was in “worse shape” because the regional administrator Debbie Cotner “wanted her gone,” the petition said.
Lane then placed Mitchell on a “Performance Improvement Plan,” indicating her work had fallen below an acceptable level.
Lane then held meetings with Mitchell to discuss whether her job performance was improving. The meetings were often held after other workers had gone home for the day. Mitchell contends that’s because Lane wanted to be alone to intimidate her.
The performance improvement plan was later determined to be inappropriate, the court petition said.
Lane was suspended and told people that the discipline “was her [Mitchell’s] fault.”
Sometime after Lane came back to work, Mitchell was working at her desk and was called away. She left an open drink on her desk, and when she came back, she noticed Lane’s keys next to it.
Mitchell finished her drink and became “extremely ill,” the petition said.
“She believes she was poisoned,” her attorney Douglas Ponder told The Pitch in a recent interview.
Mitchell became the focus of an investigation after she complained that Lane and a female employee were making derogatory remarks about her, according to the petition. During the investigation, Lane accused Mitchell of aggressive comments although he had never filed a complaint. Mitchell was fired in 2012. Lane left the department last year, according to state records.
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial in Dunklin County Circuit Court on April 3, 2017.
Sexual harassment isn’t the only reason workers have sued the Corrections Department.
Amina Alhalabi, who was born and raised in Lebanon as a Muslim, was hired in January 2012 as a corrections officer at the Cremer Therapeutic Community Center in Fulton, Missouri.
In 2013 she was assigned to work under a new supervisor, Lt. Charles Davis. Alhalabi’s lawsuit contends Davis began mocking her by mimicking her accent and speech patterns in front of her co-workers.
During one incident when Davis noticed he was upsetting her, he encouraged Alhalabi to “cry, cry — come on, cry.”
One day, her lawsuit alleges, Davis assigned her to a transfer of prisoners that would require her to see men naked. Alhalabi told him that her religion forbid her from seeing any man other than her husband naked, but Davis insisted that she carry out the assignment. She had to go to Davis’ supervisor to get out of the assignment. The same thing happened several times again, according to her lawsuit.
Davis then began describing to Alhalabi and her co-workers instances when he said “the Muslims” and “Muslim” people were committing atrocities such as beheadings and stonings. He later told Alhalabi he wanted to be like the American sniper Chris Kyle so he could go to the Middle East and kill Arabs and Muslims, according to her lawsuit.
She resigned January 23, 2015, and filed her lawsuit on February 8, 2016, in Callaway County Circuit Court. No trial has been scheduled.
NANCY K. KOONSE
Nancy Koonse, a case manager at Boonville Correctional Center, suspected retaliation when she was passed up for two promotions when she both times had the highest score in the state on the merit test, 98 out of 100.
The case manager also suspected retaliation when workers removed the bathroom door next to her office at the Boonville Correctional Center — and refused to replace it. The door had been taken away, her supervisors said, because a female employee had been caught in it having sex with an inmate.
It was replaced only after she filed a formal complaint with the department’s human rights office.
She began to be concerned she could be fired when she completed the four-step grievance process and prison director George Lombardi refused to return the papers to her. Her grievance was denied.
The final straw was when her files were moved from where she worked to another building, making it difficult for her to have access to them.
The files were placed in a tiny office too small for a copying machine. Warden Jay Cassady made a point of telling Koonse, “I like your new office.”
And a friend of her supervisor said, “Will it be hard for you to get your files now?”
Koonse filed a lawsuit in 2013 in Cole County Circuit Court, accusing the department and three employees of gender discrimination, retaliation and civil rights violations.
In her court petition, Koonse, who made $37,000 last year, said the retaliation stemmed from a complaint she filed with the EEOC in 2000, accusing then–Assistant Warden Bob Burke of sexual harassment. After an investigation, he was asked to resign.
Burke was friends with one of her supervisors and the new assistant warden.
Koonse, 49, is asking for actual damages, damages for emotional distress in the amount of $250,000, and punitive damages in the amount of $1 million.
Brim, an African-American woman, began working for the Department of Corrections in 1995 as a Correctional Case Worker in St. Louis. She received numerous promotions until she became the Assistant Superintendent at the Kansas City Community Release Center in January 2008.
In June 2009 Brim self-reported that her estranged husband had been arrested by the DEA in St. Louis and charged with drug-related activities. She was fired in December 2009 for not reporting that her husband had gotten a suspended imposition of sentence in 1997.
Brim contended in her lawsuit that the real reason for her firing was that she testified on behalf of two other employees who had sued the department for discrimination.
Brim also said that at least six other employees, all white, had done worse things than she but were not terminated.
Those alleged acts included two employees — one man and one woman — who used department equipment to photocopy men’s buttocks; a man who used departmental computers to download pornography, and a woman who tested positive for drugs on the job, who was allowed to attend a substance abuse program but was not fired.
Brim sued the department on June 1, 2010, in Jackson County Circuit Court; the case was settled out of court on April 2, 2013. Brim got $60,000 and the Lunceford Law Firm got $71,920.
Brim, who now works in security at Truman Medical Center, told The Pitch she could not comment on the settlement because of a confidentiality agreement she signed.
Two years ago, Russell Dunnington, a corrections officer at Western Missouri Correctional Center was walking across the prison yard when he suffered a seizure and fell, breaking his nose and cutting open his chin.
Dunnington was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Cameron, where doctors stitched up his chin, according to his lawsuit petition filed in U.S. District Court.
They kept Dunnington in the hospital for several days and, after tests, diagnosed him with a seizure disorder.
His cardiologist told him he could not legally drive for six months.
When Dunnington returned to work, the warden said if he could not drive, the DOC would not allow him to work, though he could perform all of his duties but the driving, according to Dunnington’s petition.
Dunnington argued that other guards without medical conditions “were allowed to continue working despite not being able to legally drive vehicles,” according to court records
The warden would not budge on his decision, the court petition said.
Dunnington, who makes $31,000 annually, was not allowed to work during the six-month period, and he had to exhaust all sick leave, vacation and family leave.
In February, Dunnington’s Liberty attorneys, Kevin Baldwin and Eric Vernon, worked out a settlement agreement with the state.
Dunnington, now 50, received $9,000 for his lost wages and kept his job. The state paid his attorneys $6,000 in legal fees.
“They made your life hell,” Lashonda Reid says about her time spent at the prison in Bonne Terre. “I would throw up in the parking lot before I even went in to work.”
Reid, now 40, lives in the St. Louis area. With the help of her $166,000 award from the state in 2011, she went to college and is now employed as a respiratory therapist at St. Louis University Hospital.
But her life at the Bonne Terre prison still haunts her, she says: “I’m still trying to recoup from that. I still think about it almost every day.”
Reid hasn’t forgotten her supervisors: Maj. Guerin, who is now retired; Lt. Paul Crowe, who resigned in 2011; and then–Sgt. David Vandergriff, who still works for the department, was promoted to major a couple of years ago and makes $46,000 a year.
Guerin was the only one The Pitch could reach for comment, and the conversation was short.
When contacted recently in Albuquerque New Mexico, where he now lives, Guerin said he couldn’t remember Reid, her lawsuit, or testifying at the hearing. He then terminated the conversation.
Reid and two other women, one black and one Hispanic, were often the brunt of jokes and other actions taken by the three supervisors and other employees.
One example involves another black female guard, according to Missouri Human Rights Commission hearing transcripts and a report by hearing officer Rod T. Chapel.
The woman was talking with other employees when she was asked if she drove a Pontiac. She told them she drove a Nissan, and they started laughing at her.
Someone said “Oh, I thought you drove a Pontiac.”
Later she asked a co-worker why everyone was laughing.
“Pontiac stands for ‘Poor Old Nigger Thinks It’s A Cadillac,” the employee told her.
Male employees often referred to female employees as “hookers” and solicited them for sex, the transcript reads. On one occasion, Crowe wiped his mouth and asked Reid to sit on his face when no other chairs were available at a meeting. Another time, Reid was discussing that it was going to cost $6,000 to get a wrecked car fixed.
Guerin responded, “You’re sitting on a gold mine. You should be using what your mama gave you,” and then asked her to sit on his lap.
It apparently was almost impossible for any employees to escape disparaging remarks.
For example, as a joke, department employees would use the prison’s loudspeakers to page “Harry Ballsack,” the hearing report said.
During the hearing, Reid says, “I kept telling myself I wasn’t going to cry. Being a black woman means you are supposed to be strong. But I started crying.”
Reid was following in her father’s footsteps when she went to work for the department in 1997. He retired from the Farmington prison where she started her career. She says that if the culture had been different, she would now be a major.
“They beat me down so bad, and then I was embarrassed because I didn’t do something sooner,” Reid says. “I felt paranoid, like I was being followed. The culture there is almost like the mob. You can’t cross anybody. I lost everything there.”
Franklin’s harasser came from high up the pecking order: James Washington, superintendent of the Chillicothe Correctional Center.
According to Franklin’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, Washington harassed her for four years with “requests for sexual favors.” After Franklin consistently rejected his advances, Washington asked her, “What is it with you? I look good. I know I dress good. Hell, I even smell good.”
Pointing to the back of his hand, he then said, according to the petition, “The only thing stopping him was ‘that right there.’ ” Franklin’s filing said one of Washington’s favorite phrases, told to various employees, was, “I can fuck you today and fire you tomorrow.”
Shortly before she filed her lawsuit, Franklin applied for a position that would have been a promotion. When Washington asked her how badly she wanted the job, she told him, “Pretty badly.” She hadn’t gotten a raise the previous year. He then asked her what was in it for him.
Franklin jokingly offered him a bottle of cognac, and he replied that this wasn’t what he meant.
Franklin told him that what he meant “wasn’t going to happen,” and she left.
After she rejected Washington, the promotion went to another employee. Franklin later applied for the job one more time and again was rejected.
Shortly thereafter, Franklin sued in U.S. District Court, where she and her attorneys received a total of $75,000.
According to Kevin Fagan’s supervisor at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Fagan’s seemingly odd behavior around his co-worker Janet Mignone was merely an attempt to “be protective of her.”
A jury, however, saw it as something different, and Missouri taxpayers could shell out $1,376,000 if its decision in her trial last spring is upheld by the state appeals court.
The jury awarded Mignone $100,000 in actual damages last spring — plus $1,000,000 in punitive damages and $276,000 for her attorneys.
Fagan’s “protective nature” took some odd twists, according to the DeKalb County Circuit Court lawsuit filed against Fagan and Mignone’s supervisor, James Nuchols.
Mignone’s lawsuit alleged that Fagan would stare at her and use words such as “tits” while making “inappropriate hand gestures.” On several occasions, Mignone said, he successfully broke into the women’s restroom while she was using it, despite her shouting at him to stay out. On one of his bathroom forays, Fagan shouted, “Come on. Move over and make some room for me,” according to court records.
Mignone said that when she left the rest–room that time, Fagan was standing with Nuchols, her direct supervisor. When she complained about Fagan’s conduct, Nuchols did nothing. After a later incident, Mignone once again complained to Nuchols that Fagan’s use of pet names for her and his invitations to meet outside work — though she had told him she was married — made her uncomfortable.
Nuchols replied: “You’re an attractive woman. I don’t think he means anything. He’s just protective of you.”
Another time when Mignone complained to Nuchols about her situation, he reached across her lap and placed his hand on her thigh and began rubbing it.
Mignone filed a grievance with the union and sent e-mail complaints to management employees, including the warden, but received little or no response.
Management then accused Mignone of watching inmates masturbate and bringing drugs into the prison, allegations that were not proved.
Fagan, who makes about $30,000 a year, is still a state corrections officer.
The department has filed an appeal.
Mignone could not be reached for comment, and her attorney, Kirk D. Holman, did not return phone calls requesting comment.
LORI LYNN WALKER
An epileptic seizure on October 7, 2013, led Lori Lynn Walker, a parole officer at the Kansas City Reentry Center, to file a lawsuit against the DOC for disability discrimination and retaliation, in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act.
That day, Walker was at the prison when she had a seizure brought on by a flu vaccination she had received several hours earlier.
Walker said that, when she began to shake, she asked a co-worker for help to activate her medical device that would control the seizure.
The co-worker activated the device and was going to do it a second time, but Warden Lilly Angelo told the co-worker not to help Walker, according to Walker’s complaint filed with the commission.
Walker was clutching the co-worker’s arm, asking her to remain by her side until she recovered, but Angelo ordered the co-worker to leave, the complaint said.
An ambulance took Walker to the hospital.
After Walker was released from the hospital, she returned to work. But Angelo, who had placed Walker on administrative leave, said she would need clearance from a doctor to return.
Walker received that clearance from the same doctor who had treated her epilepsy since 1977.
Angelo then insisted that Walker see a state doctor.
That doctor visited Walker for one hour, then sent a report to prison officials.
DOC officials prevented Walker from returning to work. In April 2014, Walker was fired for being “absent without permission,” her complaint said.
Walker had worked at the Kansas City prison since 1999 and had not had any problems before with seizures, she said.
Her trial is scheduled to begin December 12 in Jackson County Court.
When Daniel Kudlinski, a corrections officer, suffered a bad injury to his leg and ankle while off duty, he didn’t realize that would put him into hot water with his supervisors at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific.
The department’s mistake in this case would cost taxpayers almost $700,000.
The injury required surgery and medical treatment, according to Kudlinski’s court petition, filed in 2011 in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Kudlinski asked the DOC to allow him to take an unpaid leave of absence for medical treatment, but the department refused. He also asked the department to determine “a reasonable accommodation for [his] disability,” and the department refused, according to the petition.
Three months later, the department fired Kudlinski, though he was able to perform the “essential functions of his job,” the petition said.
In May 2011, Kudlinski’s doctor released him from all medical work restrictions.
Kudlinski applied to be rehired by the department for several positions, a process that is permitted by the state’s administrative rules, according to the petition. He qualified to be rehired as a corrections officer and passed a physical agility test. He also applied for positions with probation and parole at the St. Louis Community Release Center, jobs for which guidlines also said he was qualified.
After almost two years of filing job applications with the DOC, Kudlinski received only rejection letters.
In 2014 a jury agreed that the department had mistreated Kudlinski and ordered the department to pay him $262,000. The judge subsequently ordered the department to reinstate Kudlinski.
But the department spent almost another year working out a settlement agreement so that it would not have to rehire Kudlinski.
Ultimately the state last year paid Kudlinski and his lawyers $693,856.
The state also agreed to move Kudlinski’s termination date so that he was vested and will qualify for a pension when he reaches retirement age.
The way one Missouri Department of Corrections sergeant was found to have treated Alysia Dale was so bad that a victim’s attorney said the case “represents how horrible sexual harassment can become in a workplace that encourages such behavior.”
Almost as soon as Dale went to work for Sgt. Wayne Hurley, at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, he began rubbing up against her, touching her in inappropriate ways and asking her out, court records said.
Dale said she also saw other guards acting inappropriately. She testified that she’d found a captain and a female officer having oral sex in an office area.
Hurley kept promising Dale good job assignments and good personnel reports if she would have sex with him — and threatening bad assignments and bad reports if she didn’t.
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you blow” was often said in the workplace, Dale said in court records.
Her complaints were ignored. Even Warden Mike Kemna acknowledged in his deposition that he did not read them.
Eventually, Dale had sex with Hurley twice — out of concern that she would not get a promotion that would allow her to get away from Hurley if she didn’t, her Kansas City attorney, Brendan Donelon, said.
But after she got the promotion and learned that she would still have to work with Hurley, she filed her lawsuit.
Through prison personnel records, Donelon uncovered a web of women whom Hurley had propositioned over several years, or who had been harassed by other men.
In depositions, Hurley admitted to harassing women, said he knew that it was against policy, and said that many others were doing it, too.
In 2004 received a payment from the state of $82,500 for sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment.
Hurley was suspended for five days. He still works for the prison in Cameron. Last year the state paid him about $40,000.
“Hurley has had an unbelievable history of harassing female subordinates, yet he still has his job and current ranking of sergeant,” Donelon wrote in Dale’s court petition. He added that Hurley was once demoted for something considerably less problematic.
“Hurley broke a copy machine earlier in his career,” Donelon wrote. “George Lombardi [department director] demoted him for doing this. Yet when Hurley repeatedly harasses female subordinates, all he gets is five days without pay.”
A DOC spokesman said Lombardi and Hurley declined to comment.