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Department of Retaliation: Inside Missouri's Prison System 

Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri.

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Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri.

Screw Up, Move Up

On July 12, 2018, April Hudgens, a corrections officer at Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Missouri, was in one of SECC's housing units when the inmate she was writing up for a conduct violation violently attacked her. As another corrections officer at the prison made a copy of Hudgens' report, the inmate sprinted at her and started beating her. He hit her once on the side of her face and she immediately fell to the ground. It took 30 seconds for the other officer to pull the inmate off. Hudgens needed to have the wound between her ear and the back of her head glued shut. The incident left her with post-traumatic stress.

But when Hudgens quit the Missouri Department of Corrections this June, after six years on the job, it wasn't because of the assault. She'd been working through that with the help of therapy. She says she quit because of the way her bosses made her life "hell" after she brought a sexual harassment complaint against a lieutenant corrections officer.

That's not surprising, say current and former corrections employees. Across Missouri's prison system, allegations of disturbing misconduct — and retaliation — are pervasive. Details of the accusations occasionally leak out through lawsuits and increasingly through anonymous Twitter accounts run by ex-guards and family of inmates.

During the past two months, the Riverfront Times has interviewed fifteen MODOC staff members and ex-staff members about the culture and conditions within the system of 11,000 employees spread across 90 sites.

They describe a department plagued by cronyism, in which employees in the good graces of administration can get away with serious misconduct whereas those who speak out against it are the ones likely to be punished.

One corrections officer talked about being mocked and hazed because of a speech impediment, at one time put in a chokehold by his coworkers. Multiple people attested to wardens fixing promotion procedures to ensure romantic partners moved up the ranks. Time and again people interviewed used the phrase "screw up, move up" as a shorthand to describe the department's practice of promoting employees accused of misconduct to new positions in hopes they would do better there. The fifteen current and former employees stated this is all common knowledge in the department, but it is equally well known among MODOC employees that to file complaints with supervisors or otherwise speak out is perilous business. They described the majority of the corrections officers and other MODOC employees as upstanding but say the inability to remove the well-connected bad ones, particularly in management, makes the job at times unbearable.

After Hudgens was attacked by the inmate, she stayed dedicated to the job, earning a promotion in 2019. Not long after, a lieutenant began commenting on how sexy she looked, she says.

"One day he said that it was a good thing I don't wear street clothes to work because he'd seen me in my street clothes and I looked sexy," Hudgens says in an interview. Later this lieutenant said something similar to Hudgens about her eating a pickle she'd brought as part of her lunch.

She laughed off the comments at first and tried to forget about them. Then, she says, the lieutenant unlocked a bathroom for her one day and made as if he was going to follow her in. Hudgens says she filed a complaint with the prison's warden, Jason Lewis.

A few weeks later, Hudgens received an email from Lewis saying he had spoken to the lieutenant who had apologized and wouldn't joke around like that again.

But Hudgens says she felt her claims hadn't been taken seriously.

A week later, according to public records, the lieutenant was promoted to captain.

"It wasn't fair. It was a slap in the face for me," Hudgens says. "That's what it was."

At SECC, Hudgens worked the overnight shift in the segregation unit, an area often referred to as a "prison within a prison" where offenders spend all but one hour every other day in solitary confinement. The inmates in the segregation unit knew Hudgens had been attacked and several of them mocked her for it. It was re-traumatizing. Then COVID-19 moved her children's school online, her husband got a new job working overnights, and what had been a rough shift became impossible with her family's new schedule. Hudgens says she went to Lewis and asked for a different assignment. She took a voluntary demotion in May to try to make it easier to get out of the late nights in the segregation unit. One night, as her shift was starting, she made a direct appeal to the warden: "Don't put me in seg. It's really messing with me."

The next morning she received a message stating she'd been approved for a "new" position: overnights in the segregation unit.

Hudgens says that her supervisors made it difficult for her to leave segregation in retaliation for her complaining about the sexual harassment. She vented her frustration in an email to her state representative, which led to a Zoom meeting with Anne Precythe, the director of corrections in Missouri, and Precythe's second-in-command, Division of Adult Services Director Jeff Norman.

April Hudgens left her job as a corrections officer after six years. - APRIL HUDGENS
  • APRIL HUDGENS
  • April Hudgens left her job as a corrections officer after six years.

Precythe took charge of the 11,000-employee department in 2016, appointed by then-governor Eric Greitens, who said at the time, "Missouri's Department of Corrections is broken, and ... our corrections officers struggle in a culture of harassment and neglect, in a department with low morale and shockingly high turnover."

The day Precythe was officially made MODOC's director she appeared before a committee of state representatives who had been investigating allegations of harassment in the department. Precythe promised "a new day," "a new direction" and "a new culture." Soon thereafter she issued a memo outlining a zero tolerance policy for employee harassment. "Any allegations of improper behavior in the workplace will be swiftly investigated and appropriate sanctions will be administered to true wrongdoers," she wrote.

The Zoom call wasn't Hudgens' first time meeting Precythe. In 2019, Hudgens says the director came to SECC for a town hall with employees. She remembers Precythe saying that there wasn't any "good old boys" system in her DOC. Hudgens also remembers one of her coworkers politely challenged the director on this point. Hudgens says that coworker was later written up with a violation for doing so.

On that Zoom call, Precythe and Norman listened politely to Hudgens' concerns about her harassment claim not being taken seriously, then took no action. Nothing changed in SECC.

Well, almost nothing.

In May, Jason Lewis, the warden, was promoted to deputy division director, a position that oversees the management of multiple prisons.

Hudgens says it was "devastating" to see the man who had harassed her and the boss who had swept it under the rug move up in the department. To her, it was just two more examples of "screw up, move up." The following month she quit.

Anne Precythe became director of the Missouri Department of Corrections in 2017. - MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
  • MISSOURI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
  • Anne Precythe became director of the Missouri Department of Corrections in 2017.

The underground complaint system

Her first official day on the job, Precythe said she wanted to shake up the ways that employees moved up through the department's ranks. When it came to promotions, she wanted less emphasis on seniority, stating, "I do not subscribe to the next-in-line promotional opportunity ... I am all about taking a two-year employee over an eighteen-year employee all day long."

The following year, Governor Mike Parson signed into law SB 1007, which made state workers "at will" employees, giving MODOC and other state agency administrators more freedom in promotion, hiring and firing.

Employees say that even before the new law, many MODOC wardens wrote up inconvenient employees for violations seemingly concocted from thin air then used those blemishes on their records as reasons for dismissal. Jerry Govreau, a former employee at Bonne Terre, says he was written up and later fired for "over familiarity" with inmates. Paperwork viewed by the RFT showed that one of Govreau's specific infractions was allowing inmates to call him "Mr. G" when they struggled to pronounce his Francophone last name. Govreau says that the real reason for his termination was a complaint he filed against his supervisor. The "over familiarity" infraction, employees say, is what supervisors resort to when they want to fire someone who hasn't done anything wrong. Another current corrections officer says that he recently picked up a violation for "over familiarity" for handing an inmate official documents related to offender work duties. Prior to 2018, employees like Govreau could file a grievance and, however slim, had a chance for redress and to get their jobs back. Due to SB 1007, that is now gone.

Tim Cutt, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, a union, said that SB 1007 also gutted the grievance system for MODOC employees. "As of August 2018, there is no process to redress employee grievances," he says. "It's a horrible situation. Retaliation has always been an issue, but the grievance process kept it in check. Now it's running rampant and employees can't do anything about it, except call this hotline."

The hotline Cutt refers to is the 24-hour "C.L.E.A.R." line, another of Precythe's initiatives, created as a way for employees to report workplace issues and misconduct.

MODOC spokesperson Karen Pojmann says the hotline is totally anonymous and that "all complaints are addressed by trained human relations officers and resolved through conversation, mediation or investigations."

However, according to Cutt, "Wardens use it as surveillance, a way to know who is talking bad about them."

Joni Light says she was retaliated against after she went public with accusations of a hostile work environment at MODOC. - RYAN KRULL
  • RYAN KRULL
  • Joni Light says she was retaliated against after she went public with accusations of a hostile work environment at MODOC.

Joni Light made no secret of what she thought about her employers when she talked to Fox 2's Chris Hayes in 2018. She'd been with the MODOC for twenty years when she went on the record with the TV reporter about the hostile work environment she was experiencing as a unit manager at Farmington Correctional Center. When the piece aired, Light says, the department retaliated. A back and forth played out over months, but the end result was that in March 2020 Farmington's warden issued an order that Light, demoted to a corrections officer, was now "prohibited entry into Farmington Correctional Center and entering all department premises." Light says that as far as she knows she's the only person to be banned from all Missouri prisons (she wonders what would happen if she were to be sentenced to hard time), and this is something of a point of pride for her. The warden's notice banning her hangs on her fridge.

A lack of faith in official channels (and, as Light's story shows, a reason to be leery of official media) has led to unorthodox ways of whistle blowing taking root among the ranks of the MODOC. Since at least 2017, the anonymously published Hard Facts Newsletter: MO DOC Underground Publication has arrived regularly in the mailboxes of an unknown number of staff. The newsletters, several editions of which have been obtained by the RFT, report on rigged promotions, covered-up harassment complaints and staffing shortages unacknowledged by department leadership.

Joni Light keeps the order banning her from MODOC facilities on her refrigerator. - JONI LIGHT
  • JONI LIGHT
  • Joni Light keeps the order banning her from MODOC facilities on her refrigerator.

Sherry Fish, who left the department in March after 32 years and now works for the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, says the workplace culture in the state's prisons has only gotten worse since Precythe became director. Officers with the right relationships who are accused of misconduct get off scot-free after a cursory investigation, and the officers bringing allegations are the ones more likely to be punished, Fish says. In other instances when connected officers are found to be guilty of misconduct they are "punished" by being transferred to a different facility, sometimes with an accompanying promotion.

Fish says that when she was still a corrections officer at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre she reported a lieutenant who was sleeping with an employee under his direct supervision and who had rigged a promotion in her favor. Fish's complaint was ignored — and she was pulled from her post. A major also erroneously accused her of assaulting a fellow officer. Fish says video of the alleged assault, which showed her handing a set of keys to a coworker, ultimately absolved her, but that she still had to endure four months of being under investigation.

One day, not long before she left the department, Fish says she was in an outdoor area of the prison near some inmates when she slipped on a patch of ice and fell. "I'm laying there surrounded by offenders," she says. "And a captain who was nearby radioed someone on the other side [of the prison] for help, but he just kept walking."

Retaliation against corrections officers who call attention to misconduct is common, Fish says. "That's the DOC way."

Pojmann, the MODOC spokesperson, says Precythe inherited a department with serious widespread problems. However, under Precythe's tenure, Pojmann says, "the department has made significant and unmistakable progress toward its goal of fundamentally transforming the culture of corrections in Missouri, in part through deliberate and systematic approaches to combatting discrimination, harassment, retaliation and unprofessional conduct. Eliminating all unprofessional conduct within a workforce of more than 10,500 people distributed throughout Missouri might take time, but our movement toward this goal is yielding positive results, including declines in employee conduct complaints and civil rights complaints [as well as] marked increases in reports of employee satisfaction."

Caroline Giammanco worked for two and a half years as a teacher in the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri. Later, she wrote a memoir, Inside the Death Fences, about her experiences. She says that cronyism in MODOC is enabled in part by the fact that many of Missouri's prisons are in rural areas, where corrections work is the only work in town.

"These are like mining towns, in a lot of cases," she says. "If there's a power structure set up with nepotism and cronyism, even if you don't fit into it, you start turning a blind eye because if you speak up you could lose your job. If you lose your job then you have to move your family out of the town that might be your hometown."

She adds, "The resources that should go into rehabilitating inmates, preparing them to re-enter into society, instead go into these employees being paranoid that someone is going to stab them in the back."

Given how vulnerable MODOC employees become when they speak out against misconduct, it's no surprise how perilous it is for inmates to do the same.

In 2014, Teri Dean entered an Alford plea, conceding that there was enough evidence a jury might convict her for her role in the murder of a Southwest Missouri man, as part of an agreement with state prosecutors that her sentence would not be greater than 23 years.

Incarcerated at the Chillicothe Correctional Center for women northeast of Kansas City, she claims in a lawsuit she endured repeated sexual assault at the hands of four male corrections officers.

Dean's lawsuit outlines dozens of instances of the four corrections officers rubbing up against her in out-of-the-way areas of the prison, rubbing their faces between her breasts, groping her, digitally penetrating her and subjecting her to unnecessarily thorough pat-downs.

Dean's suit says that after Chillicothe staff got wind that she was contemplating legal action, she had legal mail confiscated from her and on numerous occasions was arbitrarily put into solitary confinement. While she was in solitary, a calendar on which she kept track of the dates of her assaults was taken from her and destroyed. She was pulled away from a visit with her son because staff told her she had an "appointment." The medication she takes for Crohn's disease was withheld from her.

One of the officers named in Dean's lawsuit, Edward Bearden, had been accused of sexual assault by four other inmates prior to Dean. Those four other women waited until they had been released from prison to make their allegations, saying that inmates who brought such complaints were put in solitary confinement.

Precythe is listed as a co-defendant in Dean's lawsuit, which claims she knew of the accusations against Bearden and allowed him to continue working in a women's prison. Bearden left MODOC in August 2018, at least seven months after John Amman, an attorney representing Dean, says the department was made aware of the allegations against him.

Bearden's departure came less than two weeks after he turned 62, the age when most of the state's retirement plans kick in for normal pensions.

The scandal-marred prison guard was a two-time state employee. Prior to being hired in the prison system in 2008, he had worked for eighteen years with the Missouri Department of Transportation. The exact circumstances under which Bearden left the MODOC are unknown, and there are different plans that govern retirement benefits, but it appears he likely walked away with a bigger pension by being allowed to stay through his 62nd birthday than he would have had he been forced out one pay period earlier.

When asked about Bearden, MODOC spokesperson Pojman stated, "The department does not decide when a staff member retires; the staff member makes that decision. Proximity to retirement age has no bearing on disciplinary decisions."

Sherry Fish, a former corrections officer, says she was pulled from her post after reporting a lieutenant. - RYAN KRULL
  • RYAN KRULL
  • Sherry Fish, a former corrections officer, says she was pulled from her post after reporting a lieutenant.

The "DOC way" costs taxpayers millions

As the Missouri Department of Corrections defends itself against Dean's lawsuit as well as the others stemming from allegations against Bearden, the department is also contending with a host of suits brought by its own staff for harassment, retaliation and discrimination.

The suits are different in their specifics, but each fits the pattern of retaliation that Sherry Fish calls the "DOC way."

Sana MacClugage is a Pakistani American who became a naturalized citizen in 2013 and began working at the Jefferson City Correctional Facility the following year. She alleges in a lawsuit that a coworker regularly called her a "terrorist" and a "Pakistani motherfucker," and after Donald Trump's election told her "she had better pack her bags because she was going to be 'kicked out of America.'"

MacClugage filed a complaint against the coworker and, according to her suit, soon thereafter her supervisor began shouting at her in front of other corrections officers and offenders. The suit also states she was directed to do tasks that were beneath her position, including collecting prisoners' laundry, which is usually work done by an inmate.

When MacClugage's complaint fell on deaf ears, she filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights in September 2018. Since then, according to public records, the coworker accused of calling her a terrorist has been promoted twice. The supervisor who MacClugage says retaliated against her has been promoted as well.

Wendy Dashner worked for MODOC for 23 years before leaving in 2019. A lawsuit she's brought against the department claims that prior to her departure Dashner filed an age discrimination complaint and then was soon transferred to work in the same unit as a coworker her bosses were aware was stalking her.

Kimi Moore, a probation and parole officer in the Cape Girardeau area, also complained to her supervisors about age discrimination and later, according to her lawsuit, when she helped a police officer detain an unruly suspect, it was Moore who was terminated for having a firearm with her during the incident. Moore has a concealed carry permit and has the authority to carry a gun as part of her job.

Paula Reed is also suing the department. She was a deputy warden at SECC, the same prison where Hudgens worked, in 2018 when she filed a complaint against a coworker who she says consistently harassed her. The coworker was subsequently promoted, whereas Reed, despite being a deputy warden, says she was relegated to secretarial duties.

According to Pojmann, the MODOC spokesperson, "The majority of these types of suits filed or litigated in recent years stem from alleged events that began under a different administration. ... In the last five years, 57 percent of the allegations pre-date Director Precythe's administration. Even among the current active cases, 42 percent involve allegations from before the current administration. Most suits reflect neither the department leadership now in place nor our evolving programs, processes and initiatives."

When asked, Pojmann clarified that a lawsuit alleging harassment that occurred before and during Precythe's time in charge would be categorized in the above statistic as something that occurred "before the current administration." The RFT requested the database of lawsuits brought against MODOC but hasn't received it. Most of the individuals whose stories appear here — including MacClugage, Light, Dashner, Moore, Reed, Hudgens and Fish — worked at MODOC, at least in part, after Precythe became the director.

And the litigation seems to only increase. Last month, a former Jefferson City probation and parole worker named Stephen Ben-Naimah filed a discrimination lawsuit saying that he was consistently ridiculed by his supervisor on the basis of his being from Liberia. The suit also alleges one of Ben-Naimah's coworkers "regularly called him a mass murderer" and attempted to sabotage his citizenship application. Ben-Naimah's suit says he filed complaints that went unheeded and was retaliated against for doing so by having an application to a different position discarded and his request for a transfer to St. Louis denied.

For years, lawsuits against MODOC have been costly to Missouri taxpayers, with the state paying out $9.8 million in settlements from the general revenue fund in 2018 and 2019, according to the Kansas City Star. This January the state paid out $2 million to Richard Dixson, a white intake officer who said he faced racial discrimination.

The state attorney general recently announced his office had been more aggressively litigating cases in order to keep the state's payouts as low as possible. However, with the state of Missouri's coffers in uncertain shape due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has been suggested that departments start paying their own legal liabilities.

If implemented, this change would be an expensive one for MODOC. Among its potential liabilities is a $114 million judgment — about a fifth of the department's annual budget — awarded to thousands of employees who sued over unpaid wages. The jury attached a 9 percent interest to the judgment, meaning that for every month the suit stays in appeals, MODOC potentially adds another $850,000 of red ink to its books.

Lynda Miller was working as a corrections officer in Bonne Terre in 2016 when an inmate attacked her. She still lives with the effects of the attack today. - COURTESY LYNDA MILLER
  • COURTESY LYNDA MILLER
  • Lynda Miller was working as a corrections officer in Bonne Terre in 2016 when an inmate attacked her. She still lives with the effects of the attack today.

Unending Consequences

Given the hostile work environment, dangerous nature of the job and the fact that Missouri has the lowest paid state workers in the country, it's no surprise the MODOC is struggling with staff shortages. Multiple employees who have worked at the department for more than a decade say that when they began it was the norm to be surrounded by coworkers with twenty years on the job. Now, one current employee at Bonne Terre says that he'd guess the average new hire stays for about two months.

In April, COVID-19 began spreading through Missouri's prisons, and after a recent spike, the department had recorded nearly 2,000 total cases among inmates and staff. The prison in Bonne Terre accounts for more than a fifth of those cases. Employees say that at Bonne Terre the pandemic has caused staff shortages to turn dire. One current corrections officer there says that "industry" employees who manage inmates at their manufacturing jobs are doing the jobs of corrections officers, as are "rec officers." I asked who "rec officers" were and was told, "They're PE teachers basically."

If you didn't think too much about this, you might assume that all these staffing issues would be good for inmates. You'd be wrong. Staff shortages jeopardize inmates' access to recreation and communication with the outside and can severely delay the delivery of medical care and food. In understaffed prisons, inmates have reported not being let out of their cells until early afternoon and being allowed infrequent showers. Inmate safety also becomes more precarious. A corrections officer currently working at Bonne Terre says that this summer one inmate committed thirteen sexual assaults in one week but no action was taken against him other than altering his meals.

Giammanco, the former prison teacher turned author, says that when it comes to prison reform, she refers to herself as a "hybrid" in the sense that she has worked in prisons but she also has a spouse who is incarcerated.

"It's important to fight for better conditions for employees," she says. "Because better conditions for employees makes for better conditions for inmates."

Because corrections officers spend as many as twelve hours a day in the same facility where offenders spend all day and all night, their fates are intertwined. Especially during a pandemic.

These past few months, offenders' families have complained that inmates who tested positive for the virus were not being properly quarantined. They say that inmates who required health care were unable to see doctors or get their prescriptions. Likewise, corrections officers say they didn't have proper personal protective equipment, and coronavirus protocols they received were often confused or not followed thoroughly.

Both inmates and staff have complained that offenders who test positive are still being transferred from one facility to another. One inmate in Boonville says that facility recently had four or five COVID-19 positive inmates transferred there from Fulton.

"They got them all mixed in with us," he says. "They're not quarantined. It's not possible for us to be even really quarantined, to be really social distanced, because we're so close together. We're packed like sardines. This is an open-based camp, so we're like one foot away from each other. I can reach my arm out and touch the next [guy]."

Many similar complaints have surfaced anonymously on Twitter, which has become the preferred whistleblowing method in Missouri prisons. However, unlike the Hard Facts Newsletter, the Twitter accounts serve as outlets for both corrections officers and offenders' families, the former fearing reprisal if they attach their names to complaints and the latter worried about public criticism being traced back to their locked-up loved ones.

The Hard Facts Newsletter is one of the ways whistleblowers publicize allegations of MODOC misconduct. - CONTRIBUTED
  • CONTRIBUTED
  • The Hard Facts Newsletter is one of the ways whistleblowers publicize allegations of MODOC misconduct.

Daily, sometimes hourly, the Twitter account @MissouriPrison reports information sent to it by inmates and staff. Oftentimes, MODOC will release an official statement only to have @MissouriPrison tweet information in direct contradiction. After the MODOC employees began getting in touch with her to tell her about what was going on in their places of work, the woman behind the account began posting that information as well.

"I'm overwhelmed because I never thought this would get as big as it's gotten, that I'd get so many followers and have so many people sending me information," she says in an interview. "I think right now, in terms of who's following this, it's about an even number of family members who have someone incarcerated and Department of Corrections staff members."

Despite the MODOC's stated purpose to "foster rehabilitation," all this dysfunction makes it more likely that people leaving the institutions will be changed for the worse. Several studies have shown that offenders released from prison suffer PTSD at rates far higher than average. The woman who operates @MissouriPrison says that her incarcerated loved one has PTSD from his time locked up. "He has dealt with so much in life that he doesn't get easily shaken," she says. "But this virus spreading through the facilities and the way the department is handling it is getting to him."

And then there are people like Lynda Miller, who came to the prison in Bonne Terre for the reliable paycheck. In June 2016, while working her shift as a correction officer, she says, an inmate used her "like a punching bag." While she was in the emergency room she got a "a hundred and fifty" missed calls and text messages from people worried about her. Instead of replying to each one, she says, she posted two photos of herself with a note about what happened. "I just took some pictures and sent it out and said, 'This is me, this is what's going on.'"

Miller says her bosses perceived the social media post as her trying "to take the shine" off the department. A few weeks later Miller was scheduled to have a surgery, and it was around that time she got an ultimatum: "They said that if I'm not coming to work the next day I need to come in and sign resignation paperwork." That was the end of her MODOC career and she's struggled to pay for the medical care she needs ever since.

Today as a result of the beating Miller has headaches, rapidly deteriorating eyesight and depression. She worries she'll be blind by the time she turns 60.

Then there's the anger, too.

"I've got some really bad anger issues," she says. "I don't like it. There's nothing I can do about it."

Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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