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Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

New correctional officers listen to instructors during training April 4, 2019, at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo. They were practicing in an empty housing building. They are clockwise from lower left: Jacob Hazel, Madison Wilburn, Michael Hagood, Nicholas Vieira, Timothy Snider, and Tracy Davis. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — The union representing Missouri prison guards says top brass at the Department of Corrections have illegally blocked its representatives from talking with newly hired officers.

In a lawsuit filed in Cole County Circuit Court, the Missouri Corrections Officers Association alleges that Corrections Director Anne Precythe ordered an underling to tell the union it could no longer attend training classes, where it typically informed new employees about the role of the union and the parameters of its contract with the state.

The lawsuit marks the latest legal dispute between prison workers and prison administrators, who oversee an agency with 20 facilities spread across the state.

Last year, for example, a Cole County jury awarded thousands of officers nearly $114 million in back pay.

In that case, guards alleged they were routinely not paid for work done once they arrived at the state’s lock-up.

Most officers are stationed within a prison’s “security envelope,” meaning they have to go through a search and a metal detector, turn over cellphones, tablets and any personal property, and are in uniform and in close proximity to prisoners, or “on duty and expected to respond,” the whole time.

The guards also had to follow exit procedures every day, communicate with the next shift and inventory weapons, ammunition and equipment in the case of vehicle patrol officers.

In other words, the officers were required to do certain pre- and post-shift activities, but they weren’t paid for them.

Taxpayers also have been billed for millions of dollars in damages from sexual discrimination cases lodged by female prison workers.

In the newest lawsuit, attorneys for the union said the agency is breaking a longstanding practice of allowing union representatives access to new workers during training meetings.

The union’s contract expired in September and employees have been working under terms of that agreement, which included language giving the union the right to attend the meetings.

In May, however, the union was informed that Precythe was barring their attendance on the grounds that the bargaining agreement had expired, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also says other outside groups continue to be allowed to attend the training sessions to talk with workers about health insurance, life insurance and other matters.

A DOC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

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