Pepper spray, personal alarms

  • By Rikki King and Eric Stevick Herald Writers
  • Monday, March 21, 2011 2:04pm
  • Local NewsMonroe

MONROE — A federal panel of prison experts is recommending more than a dozen changes at the Monroe Correctional Complex less than two months after corrections officer Jayme Biendl was fatally attacked.

The changes outlined in a rep

ort released Monday include arming some officers with pepper spray, equipping officers with special body alarms and increasing surveillance camera coverage in the prison.

What the report didn’t recommend was hiring more officers.

It concluded that the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe “is adequately staffed and no additional positions are necessary.”

Prison officials said they must move carefully as they overhaul the technology, policies and procedures used to keep officers safe at the state’s largest prison.

“There has been a call for rapid change in our prisons, but too quick of a reaction runs the risk that we won’t get it right,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said at a press conference Monday.

For now, the most important recommendation may be that corrections officers receive so-called panic buttons and special body alarms to alert others in an emergency, he said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire requested the federal investigation after Biendl was strangled in the reformatory chapel where she was working alone Jan. 29. Gregoire asked the National Institute of Corrections to recommend changes in how the prison operates. The federal corrections experts all are employed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The 26-page report detailed 15 recommendations.

The findings from studying Monroe could be used at prisons statewide, Gregoire said.

The state corrections department had been awaiting the report’s release before beginning an internal probe at Monroe, focusing on precisely what happened the night Biendl died. That investigation now can begin.

“Now it’s time for us to take our own internal look,” Vail said.

The federal report said that an old prison such as the Washington State Reformatory, which turned 100 in 2010, needs a higher ratio of staff-to-inmates, because there are so many places where it is hard to keep a close watch on offenders. The experts concluded that the reformatory, with 215 corrections officers, has “a very adequate, if not very good, custody staffing” allocation, the report said.

The team recommended the department institute mandatory annual training that will help officers stay sharp on the tactics and mindset they need to work safely. The training would reinforce for officers the risks of the job, said Joan Palmateer, one of three members of the federal team.

The department also needs to do a better job keeping track of corrections officers, such as Biendl, who work alone, the investigation found.

Officials described the need for “a buddy system” where workers are checked in on routinely. The report also proposed more inmate headcounts as inmates are moved from location to location within the reformatory.

“The predatory inmate plans for opportunities to get a staff member alone in an isolated area,” the report said. “Preempting this opportunity is critical to the safety of officers assigned to single person posts.”

The federal team noted that single-officer posts, such as the one worked by Biendl, are “commonly found in all correctional jurisdictions which we are familiar.”

Monroe does harbor two major areas of concern: how inmates move throughout the prison and how they qualify for jobs and volunteer positions. The team recommended that prison officials institute reforms in both areas, Palmateer said.

Biendl was slain while she worked alone at the reformatory chapel. Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist serving a life term with no possibility of parole, has been charged with aggravated murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The federal experts encouraged prison officials to review the records of all offenders serving life in prison without possibility of release. It’s likely many of those lifers should not have access to areas of the prison that are staffed by solo officers or that are known for poor visibility, Palmateer said.

Palmateer described a delicate balance between safety and continuing to offer inmate educational and social programs.

Simply warehousing inmates “would be nothing short of a security risk in itself,” she said, because idle inmates tend to cause more trouble.

Scherf’s records show that prison officials a decade ago determined he would pose a particular risk to women working at the prison, and should always be considered dangerous. He had been working as a volunteer clerk in the chapel.

The corrections department should consider redefining the conditions under which inmates can volunteer, Palmateer said. They also need to evaluate whether they should be trusted with the same job for long periods because familiarity can cause staff members to lower their guard, the report said.

The team noted that one inmate in the reformatory has served for 40 years as paid inmate clerk. “Staff refer to this particular inmate as ‘the go-to guy,'” the report said. “No inmate should be allow to gain this much power in the correctional environment.”

The concerns are particularly heightened when clerks are lifers or people with violent criminal histories, Palmateer added.

There is no screening process in place at Monroe to vet which inmates can volunteer inside the prison, Monroe prison superintendent Scott Frakes said. Inmates are screened, however, for prison industries jobs.

Any operational changes or new programs would need to be tested, corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said. Sudden changes, such as handing out pepper spray to every corrections employee, could create unforeseen security risks, he said.

The prison already has taken steps to control how inmates move within the prison at certain times.

In a tough economy, officials must consider changing staffing strategies and protocols in ways that don’t require funding, Gregoire said.

Corrections officials may seek money for upgrades this legislative session or next, Lewis said.

State Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, discussed the report with the governor Monday. He said he hopes to see the Legislature earmark money to carry out some of the recommendations this session.

He also liked the report’s recommendation that prison management and corrections officers work together on some of the proposed safety measures.

Lewis said there are no firm estimates for how much it would cost to make all the improvements outlined in the federal report.

Meanwhile, the department can get to work on figuring out what went wrong the night Biendl died and what can be done to prevent another death, officials said.

Until the alarm technology can be purchased, Monroe might start a system of detailing a few officers to spend their shifts physically checking on their co-workers’ safety, Vail said.

They also are considering closing down watchtowers to put more officers on the ground, Vail said.

The report recommended that prison officials consider eliminating mandatory 30-minute unpaid breaks for staff, a practice the experts said creates low staffing levels at peak times.

Vail said the federal report will be an important document in bringing about safety improvements to the state prison system.

Change can be a challenge in a prison system of 17,000 inmates and one has had processes in place for decades, he said.

“We owe it to Jayme and to the people of the state of Washington to make sure that we are taking a measured approach in our implementation of these changes,” Vail said. “We want these changes to be meaningful and have tangible and lasting impacts on the safety of our prisons.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

Trees and foliage grow at the Rockport State Park on Wednesday, April 3, 2024 in Rockport, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
When you gets lost hiking in WA, how much does it cost to get rescued? Surprisingly little

Washington’s volunteer search and rescue teams save lives without costly bills.

Riaz Khan finally wins office on his fifth try. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Mukilteo state House candidate arrested weeks before jumping into race

The misdemeanor domestic violence case against Riaz Khan, a former Mukilteo City Council member, has since been dismissed.

Samantha Grospe helps her son Everett Grospe, 4, pick a book during Lake Stevens Education Foundation Dolly Parton Imagination Library celebration on Sept. 21, 2018 in Lake Stevens, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
United Way delivers 100k free books to Snohomish County kids

Thanks to a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the nonprofit is making free books possible for young kids.

Everett Fire responds to  a medical incident at Northern View Apartments in Everett. (Photo provided by Everett FIre)
Everett firefighters rescue man and dog in fire that displaces 8

It took about an hour for firefighters to extinguish the flames at the Northern View Apartments on Wednesday night.

The Sounder commuter train at Everett Station Wednesday evening on October 9, 2019.   (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Hop a Sounder train from Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds to Mariners games

The next run is Sunday as the M’s face their division foe, the Houston Astros. The train departs Everett at 10:45 a.m.

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.