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Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

Correctional trainee Derick Williams takes a turn at using pepper spray (water for simulation) during boot camp in March 2019 at the Pike County Fairgrounds pavilion near Bowling Green, Mo. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is poised to hand a no-bid contract to a national prison organization with connections to Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe.

In bidding documents filed May 15, the state announced it would be awarding a six-month contract to the Association of State Correctional Administrators to conduct an evaluation of staffing levels at the state’s 21 prisons.

The association “is the only feasible source from which to acquire the custody staffing evaluation services since it is the only national corrections organization to provide the required operations, management and staffing analysis,” the purchasing document notes.

Precythe, who was hired as the top administrator at the sprawling agency by former Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017, serves as treasurer of the association and sits on the organization’s executive committee.

Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann told the Post-Dispatch that she doesn’t know how much money the state will be paying the group.

“I’m not sure about the cost. We don’t yet have a signed contract in place,” Pojmann said.

The evaluation comes as staffing problems at the agency have been well documented in recent years.

In January, Parson announced he wanted to give prison guards raises of as much as 13 percent to help slow the high rate of turnover in the agency.

Employees in the agency are among the lowest paid in the nation, with correctional officer salaries starting at $28,000 and topping out at $44,476.

The pay rate has hampered the department’s recruitment and retention of corrections officers. The job vacancy rate peaked in September 2018, when 848 of the 4,733 guard positions were open. The most recent numbers available show turnover rates of over 18 percent.

The lack of adequate staffing was partly blamed for conditions that sparked a riot by inmates at the Crossroads Corrections Center last year. Inmates were angry about being forced to stay in their cells because of a staffing shortage.

On May 12, more than 200 inmates staged a sit-in at the dining hall over reductions in recreation time and other programs. Prison workers were able to convince 131 inmates to end the standoff, but 78 prisoners spent the next six hours rampaging in a central services building.

The Missouri Highway Patrol and local police had to be called in to help quell the disturbance.

In January, the Parson administration announced plans to consolidate Crossroads and Western Missouri Correctional Center, both in Cameron, and use the savings to give raises to most of the 11,000 workers at the department.

Pojmann said the last time the agency conducted a similar evaluation was a decade ago.

“The custody staffing evaluation is our effort to bring in outside industry experts to conduct a shift analysis and review of staffing patterns in correctional centers to maximize efficiency and safety,” Pojmann said in a statement.

The association, which is based in Maryland, has conducted similar studies in other states.

In a 2014, for example, the association said Nevada should add guards at its prison facilities.

“We recommend that 100 staff be hired to avoid having mandated posts go unfilled, or having to fill them with staff working overtime,” the association said in its report.