BILLINGS – A complaint filed by a state Department of Corrections employee led agency officials to take action against Jo Acton, who recently retired from her post as warden at Montana Women’s Prison.
Documents released in response to a public records request by the Billings Gazette show that the agency’s chief of human resources, Gary Phillips, received an emailed complaint on Feb. 28 describing a hostile and unprofessional workplace under Acton’s leadership.
Less than two weeks later, Phillips sent a five-page report to the agency’s new director, Mike Batista, outlining a number of questionable management practices and behaviors by Acton.
In a summary of his report, Phillips said interviews with six prison employees who worked with Acton revealed “similar behaviors” by the warden, including the frequent use of profanity, and management “by fear and intimidation.”
Acton was placed on paid administrative leave on March 13 pending a formal investigation. She submitted a letter announcing her retirement on March 18.
Acton was the first woman to serve as a prison warden in Montana, a position she held for 18 years. Her official retirement date is July 1.
“My decision to retire was related to the recent administrative leave, which was the result of a complaint by staff that I was short-tempered and the work place was stressful for them,” Acton said in a written statement prepared recently and released through the state agency on Thursday.
“The leave gave me the opportunity to reflect on how I was not coping with my stress and was allowing it to impact my behavior and my health,” Acton said.
Batista, who was appointed the agency’s new director in January, also released a statement Thursday thanking Acton for her years of public service.
“The job of warden in a secure correctional facility is a challenging and stressful position that requires a high level of commitment and the ability to cope with daily pressures and responsibilities,” Batista said. “The 18 years Jo Acton did her job was a very long time for any warden in any prison and she clearly determined that it was time for her to make a change.”
Deputy Wardens Bob Paul and Joan Daly have been appointed to oversee daily operations of the prison until a new warden is selected.
An agency spokesman said Thursday that a national search will be conducted with a goal of hiring a new warden by June 1.
In response to the Gazette’s public records request filed on March 21, the DOC recently released nine pages of internal documents related to the decision to place Acton on paid leave.
In a cover letter accompanying the documents, Colleen Ambrose, the agency’s chief legal counsel, said some redactions were made in the documents to protect the privacy of the agency employee who filed the initial complaint against Acton in February.
Ambrose also explained other redactions in the documents as necessary to protect the privacy of employees who provided information during Phillips’ initial investigation.
Some information included in a memo that referred to information from Acton’s personnel file was also redacted.
In the Feb. 28 email sent to Phillips, the agency employee said she feared she “might be committing professional suicide” by sending the complaint.
“As you may know, the Warden is a moody person, emotional; both in hateful dialogue or tears, depending on the situation, angers easily, throws papers at you, escalates to yelling quickly, etc. The environment can be hostile and unprofessional frequently.”
“Today, it was at me,” the unidentified employee stated.
Phillips then conducted an initial investigation into the complaint by traveling to the women’s prison on March 7 and interviewing seven employees who “frequently interact with Warden Acton,” according to the nine-page report.
Phillips sent the report, which is marked as a draft and titled “Warden Jo Acton Hostile Work Environment Complaint,” on March 10.
The employee who filed the complaint was among those interviewed by Phillips. She said Acton had thrown an inmate request form at someone “while she had clients at her desk.”
The employee also said Acton during a meeting yelled “loud enough that another employee ... heard the commotion from her office.”
Acton’s plan to promote eight corrections officers without going through proper hiring procedures was noted, according to the draft report.
In his summary of prison employee interviews, Phillips noted 11 common responses in questions asked about Acton and prison management:
- Using profane language in the facility, including throwing the “F-bomb” quite often.
- Emotionally unstable or moody (inconsistent demeanor).
- Leads by fear and intimidation.
- Does not engage in dialogue and is a poor communicator.
- Talks negatively about staff in front of other staff.
- Violates security policy by bringing her cellphone and e-tablet into the secured facility.
- Conducts personal business at work, using her tablet for dog-related business.
- Out of office a lot and working on personal business often while at work.
- Very involved in personal life, dogs, and dog shows while at work.
- Lack of professionalism, commitment, and management skills.
- Inability to build trust with staff.
The draft report also states that two prison employees reported having “negative physical responses or suffering from illness and depression due to the environment at the facility that are the direct result of Warden Acton’s behavior as a manager.”
One employee said he felt he had been subjected to retaliation by Acton for his involvement in the investigation of a complaint against her in 2010, and several employees said they feared retaliation as a result of the current complaint, the report states.
One employee also said officers involved in the prison inmate dog program are not rotated as in other programs, which “can cause inappropriate boundary issues” between officers and inmates.
The same employee said “the whole management and leadership culture was not effective and he questioned a lot of practices by management, which included not just Warden Acton, but the entire management team.”
Phillips said his initial investigation found evidence to support the complaint, but there was no basis for a finding of a hostile work environment under his review of Montana workplace regulations.
Phillips also said that there was evidence to find policy violations, “generally poor management” and a prevalent disregard for DOC conduct rules.