Conclusive evidence of generally poor management and a disregard for the Department of Corrections Code of Conduct resulted in Montana Women’s Prison warden being placed on administrative leave last month.
The DOC employee complaint against former warden Jo Acton, as well as details of the investigation of that complaint, were released last week in response to a written request from Billings Gazette reporter Greg Tuttle, who requested that DOC release all public records relating to the complaint within 10 days. The DOC legal services chief responded eight days later.
Names and portions of the complaint and the draft report from DOC human resources director Gary Phillips were blacked out to protect the identities of employees and to withhold other information from Acton’s personnel file.
The information made public indicates numerous instances in which Acton’s behavior as manager was unprofessional, demeaning to her subordinates and contributing to lower employee morale.
The documents provided by DOC also show that the employee complaint sent by email on Feb. 28 was taken seriously and addressed promptly by department leadership. Seven days after receiving the complaint about Acton’s behavior, Phillips was at the Billings prison conducting interviews with the complainant and six other employees. He sent a report of his investigation to DOC director Mike Batista three days later, on a Sunday. Three days after that, Acton was placed on paid leave and the two assistant wardens were directed to take over her duties as the investigation continued.
Five days later, on March 18, Acton sent a resignation notice to Batista, announcing she would retire as of July 1, after using up accumulated paid leave. Acton is the first woman to serve as a Montana prison warden, a job she held for 18 years.
A Gazette reporter had asked the reason for Acton’s administrative leave on March 13, and information was not provided then. However, DOC was responsive to a reporter’s written request and provided important public information on what had occurred at the state’s only women’s prison.
These documents also show that DOC was responsive to concerns raised by an employee. The manner in which DOC handled this investigation should give its employees confidence that valid complaints will be taken seriously.
DOC does difficult and potentially dangerous work for Montana taxpayers. Management must be held accountable for their conduct and must be able to hold those they supervise accountable.
Batista took the reins of DOC in January, appointed by our new governor, Steve Bullock. The handling of the women’s prison complaint bodes well for this new administration. We expect Batista to continue addressing the department’s challenges promptly and thoroughly.
We expect him to maintain open communications with the public.