Despite reforms, Washington prison workers still feel unsafe

OLYMPIA — The murder of a Monroe corrections officer in 2011 incited Washington to develop and deploy the nation’s most comprehensive approach to improving the safety of prison staff.

But even with added security cameras, upgraded equipment and revised practices since Jayme Biendl’s death, more than half of those working inside Washington’s 12 prisons do not actually feel safer, according to findings in a performance audit presented to state lawmakers Wednesday.

And the mood is most dour at the Monroe Correctional Complex where only a third reported feeling safer now and 85 percent don’t think it will be safer in the near future.

“I think the survey was spot-on with what we’re hearing,” said Michelle Woodrow, president and director of corrections and law enforcement for Teamsters Local 117 which represents correctional officers. “Our members are echoing what the auditors said.”

Workers were surveyed in October 2014 at the outset of the performance audit of the effectiveness of steps taken by the Department of Corrections to increase staff safety since Biendl was killed by an inmate in the prison chapel at the Washington State Reformatory.

The changes include more training, creation of security advisory committees, modifying shift schedules to boost staffing at peak prisoner movement times, tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs.

Other actions include providing better radios, installing security cameras and distributing pepper spray to uniformed officers and maybe to all employees at correctional facilities in the not too distant future.

Many of the changes were suggested by the National Institute of Corrections. They were embedded in legislation signed in 2011 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Auditors who conducted the latest review found no other state has undertaken as comprehensive an effort to improve staff safety as Washington.

“According to our experts, no other state has developed such an advanced and comprehensive group of initiatives focused on improving staff safety,” the report states. “They believe the safety initiatives … are all based on good correctional practices, have likely improved the safety and security of prison staff, and — if fully and consistently implemented — will continue to reduce the risk of harm to staff.”

In a public hearing Wednesday, lawmakers asked one of those experts if he thought working conditions are already safer for prison employees because of changes made so far.

“I would say unequivocally yes,” George Camp, co-president of the Criminal Justice Institute, told members of the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee.

But the audit did recommend hiring more staff, installing more mirrors and cameras and responding faster to safety concerns raised by workers to further improve the safety of workers.

And auditors suggested revising various policies, procedures and practices as well. For example, the audit recommends prison cells be searched more frequently and the department mandate staff be searched every time they enter a prison facility.

Corrections officials told lawmakers that some recommendations are going forward as funding becomes available. As far as policies, they said work is under way on a statewide system for checking cells more often. And while staff does undergo searches to prevent contraband from getting into a prison, the department is refining the policy that governs the practice, they said.

“No other state has done what Washington has,” said Steve Sinclair, assistant corrections secretary in charge of prisons. “We do accept that we can improve.”

The State Auditor’s Office spent $1.8 million on the analysis. It took roughly 18 months to complete. Staff of the auditor’s office and Criminal Justice Institute visited every prison, speaking with employees and holding focus groups to address specific concerns.

In October 2014, at the beginning of the process, surveys were sent to 5,303 prison employees statewide and 1,112 responses, about 21 percent, were received.

Of those, 68 percent reported feeling safe at their facility, but just 44 percent said they feel safer than in 2011 and 23 percent said they thought it would be safer in three years.

At Monroe, where a quarter of the 1,046 employees answered the survey, 36 percent indicated feeling safer than in 2011 while just 15 percent thought it would be safer in three years.

And when asked to write in what they considered the most effective action taken to improve safety, the third most common response overall was “nothing.” It was the most common response at the Monroe Correctional Complex, leading auditors to conclude staff at many facilities might not believe any of the initiatives have improved safety.

Sinclair attributes the findings in part to the profound effect of Biendl’s murder on the agency as a whole and at Monroe specifically.

“The trauma that occurred at that facility has long-lasting effects,” he said.

He also told lawmakers it spotlights a finding in the audit of the need for better communication with employees.

“I believe the survey did bring out that we need to let people know what we are accomplishing,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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