Another debt is owed. It's one that we on the outside rarely, if ever, consider.
Prison doors slam shut and we are safe from offenders. For that, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to corrections officers.
We don't think about that because we never have to. On Tuesday, we had to.
At a public memorial attended by thousands of people at Everett's Comcast Arena, the wail of bagpipes, somber rhythms of drums and remembrances shared by officials, co-workers and friends were fitting tributes to Jayme Lee Biendl.
The 34-year-old corrections officer was described in many ways.
She was “a true public servant,” said Deputy Chief Kathy Atwood of the Everett Police Department. Biendl was a “Washingtonian through and through,” Gov. Christine Gregoire said. She was “the best of who we are,” said Eldon Vail, secretary of the state Department of Corrections. She was a “professional correctional officer, 110 percent qualified for the job she did so well,” said Superintendent Scott Frakes of the Monroe Correctional Complex.
Throughout the two-hour ceremony, there was no looking away from a heartbreaking sight, Biendl's flag-draped casket. In my memory, that sight will always illuminate the stark reality of the debt we owe — that debt we rarely think about because we don't have to.
Some traditions of Tuesday's event were all too familiar because of tragic deaths of law enforcement officers in our region over the past two years. Unlike police officers, corrections officers do their jobs mostly out of public view.
That work is hard and dangerous. “It is too often unknown and unappreciated,” Vail said. Yet “every day and every shift,” he said, “they make our community safer.”
Biendl was killed Jan. 29 while working in the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory, one of the units at the prison.
Twice I have gone inside the Monroe Correctional Complex. In 2000, I interviewed John O'Connell at the prison's Twin Rivers Unit. O'Connell was an Edmonds Community College instructor who spent much of his career teaching inmates. And in 2006, I went to the prison for an event honoring the contributions of Thelbert Lawson, then an incarcerated veteran.
To go inside, I was scanned by a metal detector and asked to remove my shoes. I signed a paper saying I would not hold the state responsible should anything happen to me.
During both visits, I was acutely aware of risks, however small, to my own safety. I was given a tour and met many corrections officers, including one I knew — a father at my children's school.
Not once during my short visits behind bars did I think about the safety of those officers and other prison staff. I see them now with very different eyes.
“We're out of sight, out of mind. And that's unfortunate,” said Norman Seabrook, union president of the New York City Correction Officers Benevolent Association. The group brought a dozen East Coast officers to honor Biendl.
“We do good work,” said Maggie Miller-Stout, who's been superintendent of the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane for 10 years. “We do our job. That's part of the reason we're invisible.”
“What people should take away from this event is that every day the men and women of law enforcement risk their lives,” said Michael Green, a captain at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. In the hall outside the arena before the ceremony began, Green said that police, firefighters and corrections officers are all “part of a big team.”
One part of that team — corrections officers — are often forgotten.
No more, though. We will never forget.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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