Questions linger in prison killing

  • By Scott North
  • Friday, August 5, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

It was only hours after the Jan. 29 slaying of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl before theories began to swirl about the reasons an inmate was able to end her life.

Some blamed staffing cuts at the Corrections Department — even though there had been no change in the number of officers who worked with Biendl at the state’s largest prison complex. Others suggested more video cameras could have, should have, been in place; never mind that electronic eyes already were monitoring nearly every part the prison, including much of the chapel building where she was killed. Still others claimed the Washington State Reformatory had become ultra violent. Somebody, they asserted, must be juking the stats to produce figures documenting sharp declines in prison assaults there in recent years.

What to believe?

Results of three separate investigations into Biendl’s death now have become public. Each concluded that weaknesses in policy and procedure — a collective lowering of the guard — figured prominently in the tragedy.

That was what some of Biendl’s former co-workers told us in the weeks after the killing. They came forward privately and spoke with reporters, hoping to insure the truth got out. They described how people who could have made a difference weren’t at their posts the night of the killing.

Inmates look for security gaps. Into them stepped somebody bent on doing evil. How do we know? Byron Scherf reportedly has admitted as much.

According to the corrections department’s internal investigation, Scherf actually wrote top prison officials to offer his input. The repeat rapist suggested that any thorough review would have to focus on specific lapses in security that allowed him to duck unnoticed back into the chapel when he was supposed to be headed to his cell.

In 1997, prison officials put a warning in Scherf’s file, describing him as manipulative, cunning, and a serious risk to female employees. None of the investigations so far have addressed how the lifer wound up in a medium-security prison where he enjoyed a measure of freedom in his movements.

The corrections department’s’ internal investigation found “no clear documentation” that Scherf’s switch to medium-security followed policy and was approved by the department’s deputy director. Thousands of records The Herald has reviewed show that change came about a decade ago, not long after Scherf attempted suicide.

Why hasn’t that decision been more closely examined?

The internal investigation team determined the lack of a paper trail wasn’t significant enough to warrant more scrutiny, corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said. Scherf’s prison behavior to that point had been sufficiently compliant to warrant less-restrictive custody, the team determined.

Scherf went 14 years behind bars without harming anyone but himself, Lewis said. Now he’s charged with killing a corrections officer.

The case underscores a “prison reality,” Lewis said.

Any inmate, on any day, can hurt you.

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