Reinstated prison workers will get back pay

MONROE — It will cost taxpayers about $350,000 to compensate three recently reinstated Washington State Reformatory corrections officers and a demoted sergeant who were disciplined after their coworker, Jayme Biendl, was killed by an inmate in 2011.

The estimate includes benefits, sick leave, vacation, union dues, retirement contributions and more than $100,000 in unpaid wages. It covers all four officers, officials said.

Two of the corrections officers have been rehired by the state Department of Corrections.

They will receive about $40,000 each in back pay, according to state payroll records.

One will return to work at the Monroe Correctional Complex, which includes the reformatory; the other has been hired at the Airway Heights Correctional Complex west of Spokane.

Talks continue, but a settlement has not been reached with the third corrections officer.

“It’s just a matter of getting the final details worked out,” said Norah West, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

In a July ruling, arbitrator Michael Cavanaugh ordered the corrections department to reverse the firings of the three officers and the demotion of the sergeant.

The sergeant will receive more than $7,100 in lost pay after the arbitrator ruled that he was wrongfully stripped of his rank.

Under the arbitration ruling, the corrections department was required to give the officers their old jobs back. It was up to the employees to decide if they wanted to return. The back pay also was ordered. Under terms of the labor contract between the union and the state, the ruling was binding and can’t be appealed.

Biendl, 34, was strangled at her post in the prison chapel. She wasn’t found for almost two hours. After an internal investigation, prison officials accused several officers of misconduct, dereliction of duty and of purposely misleading investigators after the death.

In the days after the killing, the union blamed the department’s top brass. Privately, though, people who were working at the prison that night said Biendl’s colleagues were partially responsible.

People who could have checked on Biendl weren’t where they were supposed to be, officers told The Herald. Those statements were repeated during the aggravated murder trial of the inmate who took her life.

Cavanaugh, the arbitrator, found that staff complacency and safety failures were widespread at the prison, and that it was unfair to blame individual employees for an institutional problem. He issued his findings in a 54-page ruling.

One of the reinstated officers was not at his post outside the chapel the night Biendl was strangled, documents showed. Detectives found that if the officer had been where he was supposed to be, inmate Byron Scherf may not have had the opportunity to attack.

Scherf, a convicted rapist then already serving a life sentence, was sentenced to death for the killing. He had admitted to looking for the opportunity to ambush Biendl. Scherf went outside the chapel to look for the officer before closing the outer gate and returning to kill Biendl. Scherf mentioned the empty post in a letter he sent to prison officials a few months later.

“Scherf suggested in the letter that any meaningful investigation would include a review of why (officers) were not posted on the walkway,” according to an internal report. “One inference that could be taken from the Scherf letter is that he looked for and saw the opportunity to return to the chapel undetected.”

The officer not at his post was not properly supervised and rules weren’t consistently enforced about remaining at his post, the arbitrator wrote. In addition, he and the other officers had multiple supervisors who held them to different standards. There was not an adequate history of discipline to support termination, the arbitrator’s ruling states.

The officer is one of those already returning to work, West said.

In addition to ordering back pay and wages, the arbitrator considered awarding interest on the money, but determined that he legally could not.

After Biendl was killed, there were a series of investigations into how the prison was being run, resulting in more training, security advisory committees, beefed-up staff at peak prisoner movement times and tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs.

The population at the reformatory was reduced. At the same time, body alarms were issued to corrections officers, which an officer can easily set off if he or she needs immediate help.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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