Missouri Dept. of Corrections losing veteran employees, hiring unqualified replacements

ST. LOUIS – Legislators won’t raise the pay for Missouri Corrections Officers, who are among the lowest paid anywhere in the nation. So, the Department of Corrections is lowering hiring standards. At one-point, the state DOC began a questionable emergency hiring program just to get new recruits.

Johnathan Hance was one of them.

“I was basically like a mini-me to a (corrections officer),” he said.

Hance said he was hired as what’s called an emergency corrections worker (ECW). He said he received the same pay as a regular a corrections officer but started with zero training. His orders? He could only use the radio.

“If anything happened with use of force, you are supposed to step back and radio for help, if it’s too serious, or let the CO that you’re following around handle the situation or just try not to get involved with it,” he said.

Hance was working with an officer in July 2007 when an inmate attacked from behind, stabbing her repeatedly. He said he’s prohibited from getting into detail but he can say that he was powerless.

“If I had the training at that time I would’ve been supposed to step in and help take care of the situation,” Hance said.

“I think it’s all bogus, honestly. You need to get the training before you go in there.”

The DOC reportedly stopped hiring emergency corrections workers on September 28 without explanation. However, Farmington Corrections Supervisor Joni Light said she’s constantly fighting pressure to put workers with no training out with offenders.

“I’m being told to send my untrained staff in defensive tactics, out into the wing, without interrupting custody staff in their daily duties, because they’re short-staffed already, and I’m not necessarily comfortable with that,” she said. “So, I’m sending my untrained staff back to basic training to get their defensive tactics and I’m going out there with them.”

The head of the corrections officers’ union said so many veteran officers are leaving because of pay and morale that the state is changing how they hire out of desperation.

“They have diminished hiring standards to where there’s virtually no hiring standards anymore. If you can walk in the door, you can get a job,” Gary Gross said.

Gross said you can now start working at 19-years-old and he said there’s no longer a physical test.

“Now you don’t even have to have a driver’s license and I think they’ve done away with some of the education and things in that area,” he said.

DOC Director Ann Precythe tried getting answers at an August town hall near the Bowling Green prison.

She asked the crowd, “Why are people quitting?”

An officer in the audience answered, “I would say money is part of it, better jobs, feeling unsafe.”

“Help us recruit the new people,” Precythe said.

She said she’d press legislators for pay raises but officers would have to accept younger recruits.

“I’m not giving up on the Generation Xers or the millennials because we need them. I am not giving up on them. They are coming to us in droves. We are going to encourage them.”

Missouri prisons are so short on staff right now, officers are forced to work overtime.

Stay tuned to our ongoing investigation into the ‘Crumbling Corrections’ department and how it’s impacting not only officers but also inmates, their families, and crime victims.