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Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates

Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates

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ST. LOUIS • The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole allegedly toyed with prisoners during hearings by trying to get them to say a chosen word or song title of the day, such as “platypus” and “Hound Dog.”

Don Ruzicka, a member of the seven-member board, along with an unnamed government employee were accused of keeping score during the hearings, according to a Department of Corrections inspector general report completed on Nov. 1, 2016.

Each time one of them used a predetermined keyword while interviewing an offender they earned a point. Two points were granted if the offender repeated the word. Occasionally, the duo spiced the game up by wearing matching clothing, like the time they dressed in black shirts, ties, pants and shoes.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis recently obtained the state report and released it Thursday after a news conference, asserting that public servants “played games with people’s lives and liberty.”

“These activities, so far as we are aware, have never come to light in the public’s eye,” said Mae Quinn, director of the nonprofit human rights law firm. “They simply were not taking their duties seriously and their role as appointed officials and public servants seriously.”

The group, and other supporters, called on Gov. Eric Greitens to reform the board, including immediate removal of Ruzicka.

The seven-member parole board is responsible for determining whether a person confined in the Department of Corrections will be paroled or conditionally released, and for supervising thousands of people on probation and parole. They run parole hearings at prisons and by video.

Critics, including people who held leadership positions for the corrections department, have said in recent years that they want the parole board to be reformed. They believe it operates almost entirely in secret and has become a plum place for former lawmakers to land since term limits have been in place.

Board members are appointed by the governor for six-year terms. Ruzicka, a former conservation agent and Republican state representative from Mount Vernon, began his term Dec. 21, 2012. Former Gov. Jay Nixon appointed him. He was paid $85,204 in 2016, not counting retirement benefits.

Inspector General Amy Roderick concluded in her report that Ruzicka and an unnamed corrections employee who attended parole hearings violated a governor’s executive order and other procedures by failing to conduct state government in a manner that “inspires confidence and trust.”

Referencing recordings of some hearings, Roderick wrote: “It seemed they were trying so hard to embed the words or song titles into their questions or statements that they were not focused on the proper questions to ask nor were they actively listening to the responses from the offenders … and, most times, it seemed the offender was being made fun of by the use of such words and song titles during the process.”

According to Roderick’s report, the report was to be delivered seven months ago to then-Parole Board Chairman Ellis McSwain Jr. and the chief state supervisor for the Department of Corrections. In March, Greitens elevated Republican board member Kenneth C. Jones to the role of chairman, replacing McSwain, a Democrat. McSwain remains a member of the parole board.

A corrections department spokesman said on Thursday that department officials had no comment.

Keeping score

“Hootenanny,” was the word of the day on June 21, 2016.

According to the inspector general report, the unnamed department employee used the word four times during one hearing. Each time Ruzicka laughed out loud.

During the hearing, the employee whispered to Ruzicka: “I got four (points).”

In another hearing that day, Ruzicka referenced the song “Peggy Sue.” He asked the offender if she was named after the song. The department employee laughed and said he was just trying to lighten the mood.

“Or you could just have a hootenanny,” Ruzicka countered.

“Yes, we could have a hootenanny,” the employee said, whispering that points would be counted.

Asked when she first used heroin, the offender said it was at a rave.

“I thought they might have called it a hootenanny,” said the employee.

“A what?” the offender responded.

“A hootenanny,” the department employee said. “A party.”

Ruzicka and the employee laughed again.

“Platypus” and “armadillo” were the words on June 22, 2016, followed by “biomass” and “manatee” the next day. At hearings in July, song titles included “Soul Man,” “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Hound Dog,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

For instance, in a parole hearing for a sex offender, the department employee said: “Your grandma would probably be like he ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog, you know it.” The employee added that if the offender kept up the behavior, the offender might be placed in a sexually violent predator unit, which is run by the Department of Mental Health and holds patients indefinitely. In that case, the employee said the offender might as well learn the song “Folsom Prison Blues.”

More laughing.

Asked by the inspector general how incorporating words and song titles in the hearing helped determine risk and potential release, Ruzicka said: “Through the complete and thorough hearing process we were able to determine the release date.”

Why “platypus”?

Ruzicka said: “I guess if they were rare items he’d taken and a platypus is a rare and unusual thing.”

Why dress the same?

Ruzicka laughed, according to the report, and said: “Just another one of those things.”

Ruzicka told the inspector general they played the game a few days and stopped.

Asked by the inspector general if “all of this sounded ridiculous,” Ruzicka said: “Yeah. Like I said, it happened and it was over … maybe that little check in here (he was pointing to his chest) was to move on. We didn’t discuss ending it. It just kinda ended.”

Family upset

The investigative report says “several employees” were aware of the game being played by the duo and did not report it.

Amy Breihan, a lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center, said such behavior potentially taints thousands of cases.

“Who knows how many hearings were affected by this conduct?” she said. “Even in hearings where literal games were not played, one has to question how seriously parole staff are taking their duties.”

At least one family is outraged. Two weeks ago, Ruzicka was part of a parole hearing for Norman Brown, who was involved in a fatal robbery when he was 15. He’s been in prison 28 years, though he wasn’t the shooter, said his attorney. His parole was recently denied.

“This does not sound fair having hearings conducted by a man who sees people like my brother as a means of entertainment,” Shatiega Brown, 36, Brown’s sister, said at the news conference. “Imagine if this was your family, your father, your brother. Would you think this is right, appropriate or just?”

She and others at the news conference urged the governor to take action.

“I am pleading with you so that my brother can have a second chance, a fair chance,” she said.

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Related to this story

A parole board member has resigned in the wake of scandal. But Gov. Eric Greitens and the state corrections department director must investigate well-founded allegations that a parole board member and a corrections department employee humiliated and toyed with state offenders pleading for a chance to get their lives back on track. Prisoners need reassurance that they will get a fair shot at parole instead of being mocked for entertainment.

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