Fine urged in prison slaying

  • By Eric Stevick and Rikki King Herald Writers
  • Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:41am
  • Local NewsMonroe

MONROE — The state Department of Corrections faces a $26,000 fine after investigators found Washington State Reformatory staff didn’t follow safety policies the night officer Jayme Biendl was strangled in the prison chapel.

If policies and post orders had been enforced, they would have realized Biendl was missing much earlier, the state Department of Labor and Industries concluded. It released its findings Wednesday.

“It was clear from our investigation that there were missed opportunities where her absence could have been noted sooner,” L&I spokesman Hector Castro said.

The watchdog agency is proposing a $26,000 fine, nearly the maximum amount allowed.

The six-month investigation found three serious violations at the reformatory. A serious violation is considered a problem that creates a substantial probability of serious workplace injury or death.

Prison officials on Wednesday said they needed time to review the report.

“It was just delivered today,” acting Department of Prisons director Dan Pacholke said. “I have read it but that’s not to be mistaken with having studied it.”

Many of the findings in the L&I report mirrored “complacency issues” raised by an internal review and an investigation by the National Institute of Corrections, he said.

“We certainly are taking this seriously,” he said.

L&I found prison supervisors were not routinely enforcing orders designed to account for the safety of officers who worked in the chapel and in the nearby Programs and Activities Building.

Biendl, 32, was attacked in the chapel around 8:30 p.m. Jan. 29, but she was not found until 10:18 p.m.

Inmate Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder and could face the death penalty. He’s accused of slipping back into the building and killing Biendl when prisoners were being moved back to their cells.

Standing rules, called post orders, direct the chapel officer at 8:30 p.m. to clear the building of inmates and report to staff in Tower 9.

L&I investigators found no proof that was happening consistently, Castro said.

Post orders also direct the chapel officer to help staff in the Program and Activities Building after clearing the chapel. That didn’t happen that night, and the policy wasn’t usually enforced.

Prison policy said Biendl and other officers with similar shifts were supposed to notify a sergeant when they were done for the day and to return chapel equipment to the control room. Those policies were not consistently followed or enforced, the report said.

Corrections officers also had no clear directions on what they were supposed to be doing during “movements,” when inmates are allowed to travel between zones within the prison, Castro said.

Labor and Industries also found there wasn’t adequate training or testing to make sure orders were being followed.

The Labor and Industries investigation is evidence the state corrections department failed to create a safe work environment, said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections workers.

State corrections leaders said they are increasing staff training and reviewing all safety policies and procedures. They’re also buying new radio microphones with easier-to-reach alarm buttons, pepper spray and body alarms. Shorter eight-hour shifts also have been put in place so more officers are working at all times.

The state corrections department has 15 working days to appeal the citation.

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

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