Changes at prisons meant to make employees safer

The killing of Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex in January has led to a series of changes aimed at making corrections officers safer at prisons across the state.

Those upgrades, which include more training and enhanced safety equipment such as radios with easier-to-reach panic buttons, are described in a report released Wednesday by the state Department of Corrections.

As a result of Biendl’s death, state lawmakers now require the corrections department to make an annual report on corrections staff safety.

Many of the changes were recommended by the National Institute of Corrections after Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered a study on prison safety.

State Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, called the new report “a good first step,” but worries that state budget reductions could undercut efforts to improve safety for prison staff and community corrections officers, who monitor offenders on parole.

“It will take time,” Pearson said. “Even in times of budget struggles, we can’t lose sight of those working up there and those working in the community corrections division.”

Biendl, 32, was found strangled in a chapel at the Washington State Reformatory Jan. 29. It was the first time in more than three decades that a Washington correction officer was killed in a state prison. Convicted rapist Byron Scherf, 53, is awaiting trial for aggravated first-degree murder. He could face the death penalty.

Safety advisory committees at each of the state’s prisons have been meeting to address safety and security concerns raised by staff, according to the report. Two statewide panels made up of representatives from the local committees are addressing issues not resolved at the local level.

The security committee at Monroe has been asked to provide input about new body alarms that officers are testing. The system is expected to be operational statewide by May.

Other initiatives include security forums designed to combat staff complacency and the hiring of a consultant to study how prison cameras are being used. Pepper spray also is being made available to officers working in some prisons, including the Monroe complex.

The corrections agency is working on a new screening process to identify the riskiest offenders before they are transferred, have a change in custody level or get a prison job.

Scherf had earlier been deemed high risk and a threat to corrections staff, particularly female officers. Even so, he managed to get transferred to a less-restrictive setting in Monroe after a suicide attempt, and later lobbied for increased freedoms, including the prison chapel job that brought him into contact with Biendl.

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

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