Some Monroe prison employees say changes have improved safety
Corrections workers explain the changes that have been made to protect staff after an officer's death.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
A guard tower at the Washington State Reformatory looks down on prisoners waiting to move between gates Thursday afternoon during a media tour of the facility.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Monroe Correctional Complex Superintendent Scott Frakes talks to the media regarding new staff safety procedures inside the Washington State Reformatory on Thursday afternoon during a media tour of the facility.
In doing so, the corrections officer said he can better support his colleagues than he did a year ago.
He also feels safer working in the century-old prison.
It's not so much recent equipment upgrades, such as pepper spray or an emergency alarm button on his radio microphone. It's more the changes in procedures that have taken root since fellow corrections officer Jayme Biendl was killed in the prison chapel in January, he said.
"There is more accountability," he said. "We just check a lot more on everybody."
Carter, for instance, now frequently stops by places where, as Biendl had done, corrections officers work alone.
That means inmates can't count on those officers being alone for long, he said.
Workers at the reformatory and leaders from the state Department of Corrections on Thursday outlined a series of changes that have been put in place or are under way since Biendl, 32, was killed. They include more training, security advisory committees, shift changes to increase staffing at peak prisoner movement times, tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs as well as new equipment and higher expectations of prisoner behavior.
Some changes were made with inmates like convicted rapist Byron Scherf, 53, in mind. He has been charged with aggravated first-degree murder in Biendl's killing and could face the death penalty.
Scherf, who was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, had demonstrated good behavior behind the prison walls. He'd earlier been deemed high risk and a threat to corrections staff, particularly female officers, but his conduct won him increased access to programs and jobs, such as working in the chapel where there was less security.
"On paper, he looked like a model inmate, and by his actions for 10 years he was," said Capt. Ed Fritch, a corrections officer for more than three decades. "Ten years is a long time."
Biendl's killing was a somber reminder of the inherent danger of working in a prison where workers can be lulled into a false sense of security, officials said. It was the first time in more than three decades that a Washington corrections officer was killed in a state prison.
"What it turned upside down was our whole way of thinking about people being able to come in and function in a structured environment," said David Bustanoby, Monroe Correctional Complex associate superintendent.
A new screening process places greater scrutiny on what inmates were convicted for in determining an appropriate classification.
It tries to address the question "how could a guy like that be in a facility like that and be allowed in an area like that," Bustanoby said.
The reformatory, a medium-security prison, no longer has double bunks in some cells. The overall reformatory population has dropped from around 750 to 630. The number of inmates with life sentences also has dropped from 150 to 100. After each of their files was reviewed, many were reassigned to other prisons.
The physical structure of the reformatory has changed as well. A building that once was used for storage and religious programs has been torn down to improve visibility.
The chapel remains closed.
Superintendent Scott Frakes said plans are under way to remodel the building to make it safer. That could include more windows and changes to its layout. There is no timetable for its reopening.
There continues to be some discussion about removing a tower to put more officers on the ground, but no action has been taken, officials said.
Expectations also have been increased for inmates wanting to stay at Monroe.
Its location in the Western Washington area makes it "a pretty prized place to be housed," Bustanoby said. "We can use that as a behavior management tool for people who want to stay here and be close to the families."
Fritch, the corrections captain, said he feels better that more effort is being made to assure correctional officer safety.
"I think there's a large portion of staff that feel safer but there are some that don't," he said. "It's good to see that focus on staff safety rather than inmate programs. It has been scaled back to make sure we have appropriate supervision."
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com
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