Despite reforms, Washington prison workers still feel unsafe

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Thursday, April 21, 2016 8:41pm
  • Local News

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;

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Ariel Garcia, 4, was last seen Wednesday morning in an apartment in the 4800 block of Vesper Dr. (Photo provided by Everett Police)
How to donate to the family of Ariel Garcia

Everett police believe the boy’s mother, Janet Garcia, stabbed him repeatedly and left his body in Pierce County.

A ribbon is cut during the Orange Line kick off event at the Lynnwood Transit Center on Saturday, March 30, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
‘A huge year for transit’: Swift Orange Line begins in Lynnwood

Elected officials, community members celebrate Snohomish County’s newest bus rapid transit line.

Bethany Teed, a certified peer counselor with Sunrise Services and experienced hairstylist, cuts the hair of Eli LeFevre during a resource fair at the Carnegie Resource Center on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Carnegie center is a one-stop shop for housing, work, health — and hope

The resource center in downtown Everett connects people to more than 50 social service programs.

Everett mall renderings from Brixton Capital. (Photo provided by the City of Everett)
Topgolf at the Everett Mall? Mayor’s hint still unconfirmed

After Cassie Franklin’s annual address, rumors circled about what “top” entertainment tenant could be landing at Everett Mall.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Stanwood man gets federal prison for selling fentanyl on dark web

In 2013, Christerfer Frick was sentenced to nine years for trafficking drugs. He began selling online upon his release in 2020.

Molbak's Garden + Home in Woodinville, Washington closed on Jan. 28 2024. (Photo courtesy of Molbak's)
Molbak’s, former Woodinville garden store, hopes for a comeback

Molbak’s wants to create a “hub” for retailers and community groups at its former Woodinville store. But first it must raise $2.5 million.

A fire at a home near Alderwood Mall sent one neighbor and one firefighter to the hospital. (Photo provided by South County Fire)
Officials: Residents returned to burning Lynnwood home to rescue dogs

Five people and six dogs were displaced in the Thursday afternoon house fire, according to South County Fire.

Featuring a pink blush over a yellow background, WA 64 combines qualities of Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady) for a firm, crisp, sweet and tart bite. A naming contest for the new apple runs through May 5, 2024. (Photo provided by Washington State University)
Hey Honeycrisp, this new breed of apple needs a name

Enter a naming contest for WA 64, a hybrid apple with the same baby daddy as Cosmic Crisp.

Police respond to a wrong way crash Thursday night on Highway 525 in Lynnwood after a police chase. (Photo provided by Washington State Department of Transportation)
Lynnwood woman, 83, killed in wrong-way crash following police pursuit

Deputies said they were chasing a man, 37, south on Highway 525 when he swerved into northbound lanes, killing an oncoming driver.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

People walk along the waterfront in front of South Fork Bakery at the Port of Everett on Thursday, April 11, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Port of Everett inks deal with longtime Bothell restaurant

The port will break ground on two new buildings this summer. Slated for completion next year, Alexa’s Cafe will open in one of them.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.