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; rking@heraldnet.com.

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