MONROE — State prison officials say they have begun tightening up how inmates are screened for jobs to reduce the odds of attacks on staff working alone. The move comes after corrections officer Jayme Biendl was killed Jan. 29 at the Washington State Reformatory.
Even so, hundreds of picketi
ng officers on Wednesday said there is much more that must be done to improve safety.
Biendl was found strangled in the reformatory chapel where she was working alone. Convicted rapist Byron Scherf, who worked in the chapel, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege he waited for everyone to leave before he attacked.
The department now is looking statewide to screen out inmates who, like Scherf, may be in jobs where the risks outweigh the benefits, state Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said Wednesday.
“Predicting human behavior is what we are supposed to be perfect at,” Vail said. “They’re not like doing an X-ray to see who has a broken leg.”
Corrections leaders described a tricky balance between the safety of officers and the need to have inmates hold down jobs. If inmates are idle, they are more likely to commit violence. Their work also saves taxpayers millions of dollars.
In the case of Biendl’s death, “some madman studied the system and figured out how to take advantage of it,” Vail said. “We got beat, and we got beat bad.”
Vail discussed other changes in the works and what might lie ahead as independent and internal investigations start into Biendl’s death.
At the same time, hundreds of corrections officers across the state carried informational picket signs demanding safety improvements.
About 100 officers gathered outside the Twin Rivers Unit at Monroe on Wednesday afternoon. Passing drivers honked in support. The protests were organized by the Teamsters Union 117, which represents corrections officers.
Picketing prison staff raised numerous safety concerns. Their day-long pickets came hours after a corrections officer at the Washington State Penitentiary was stabbed several times in the face by an inmate with a ballpoint pen. The assault occurred in a mental health unit at the prison in Walla Walla.
They called for more video surveillance cameras inside the walls, and fewer solitary posts. They also criticized prison leaders and the classification system used to determine the level of custody for inmates.
Prison administrators have overlooked officer safety in favor of providing for inmates, corrections officer Ryan Andelian said.
One of their main concerns is the number of single-officer posts. It often feels like unarmed crowd control, he said.
“Any time you have an officer working alone with 45, 90 or more offenders, you have an uncontrollable situation,” he said.
Officers are routinely thrust into unsafe situations, said Carl Beatty, a corrections officer and steward for the Teamsters.
He wants single-officer posts eliminated. Corrections officers need more support across the board, he said.
A significant change in leadership also is needed at Monroe, corrections officer Arben Kullojka said. He’s worked at the state reformatory for seven years.
He and other officers listed benefits and privileges for inmates they see as distractions from officer safety, including barbecues, ice cream socials and choir groups.
“This is an adult facility for offenders,” he said. “It’s not a therapeutic kindergarten.”
Some officers carried signs calling for the resignation of Scott Frakes. He’s superintendent at Monroe, the state’s largest prison complex.
Vail defended Frakes, saying he is the right person for the job. He called the criticism directed Frakes’ way understandable, given the pain over Biendl’s death, but also unfair.
An independent federal investigation into the killing began Monday.
Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the outside review. The three-person team from the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, will examine policies and procedures, including staffing levels and the classification system used to determine the level of custody for inmates. Scherf, who already was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, was classified as medium security.
The team is expected to give the corrections department its report by March 19.
Vail expects recommendations will touch on issues identified by corrections officers, including whether more cameras are needed and if officers should be issued personal body alarms.
An internal investigation will follow the federal review. Documents have been gathered but no interviews have been done. The investigation will be run by three superintendents and associate superintendents from other prisons in Washington. All understand the state’s prison system, but none has worked at Monroe.
Some measures already have been put in place, state prisons director Bernie Warner said.
When inmate counts are made, staff counts also now are conducted.
At Monroe, corrections officers are checking on co-workers more frequently. There also is more structure in how inmates are moved, with less opportunity to wander.
The state corrections department has requested information from companies to determine how much it would cost to provide personal body alarms for officers at all state prisons. They know that adopting such technology, which would be in addition to officers’ radios, would cost millions of dollars.
Vail, who has witnessed inmates’ executions, said he has faced no more tragic experience than the early morning of Jan. 30 when he knocked on a door to break the news of Biendl’s death to her family. He said he touched their hands, witnessed their shock and pain and shared in their grief. He hopes whatever improvements can be made will avoid similar tragedy for another family.
“I don’t want to ever have to do it again,” he said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.