Training correctional officers for Missouri prisons

New correctional officers watch and learn how to search an inmate in one of the empty cell buildings April 4, 2019, at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, Mo. After boot camp, their training continued for two weeks inside the prison. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

J.B. Forbes

JEFFERSON CITY — A state appeals court sided with thousands of Missouri prison guards Tuesday in a case that will cost taxpayers an estimated $125 million.

In a decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, a panel of judges denied each of the state’s objections to a 2018 decision by a Cole County jury, affecting 13,000 current and past corrections officers.

The case, which began in 2012, alleged the Department of Corrections did not pay guards for work done once they arrived at their prison.

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 the lower court decision, the officers were awarded $113.7 million in back pay for the practice.

In addition, the state must pay 9% annual interest while the case is going through the appeals process. That amounts to an estimated $12 million, bringing the estimated cost to about $125 million.

Attorneys for the officers praised the appeals court ruling, but said it they wouldn’t be surprised if the department continues fighting the decision.

“We feel really grateful that the appeals court gave strong support to the class,” said attorney Michael Flannery. “But, this is just the first hurdle in the appellate case.”

Attorney Gary Burger also expects further appeals, despite the added cost of the interest.

“This has been a long fight,” Burger said. “We hope the state will step up and take responsibility for their actions.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said the decision is under review.

The 17-page ruling showed the court did not buy any of the state’s arguments, including the premise that the beginning and end of shifts should not be compensated.

“Here, the most dangerous, relevant, and integral part of the officers’ ‘extra work’ is the transition from entering the correctional facility and arriving at their shift post — where the threat of prison riots and attempted escapes are real, formidable, and of such nature as to require diligent attention and readiness to intervene,” the court wrote.

The court also dismissed the state’s contention that the case should not have covered all of the workers, saying that would have resulted in thousands of trials over the same issue. And, the court denied the state’s argument that it cannot install a new timekeeping system because the Legislature has not approved any funds for one.

If the jury verdict stays intact, the average corrections officer is on track to receive at least $5,000 from the judgment. Longer serving guards could get as much as $34,000.

TRAINING TO BE PRISON GUARDS

Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181

@KurtEricksonPD on Twitter

kerickson@post-dispatch.com

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