State prison chief takes another job

OLYMPIA — Washington Secretary of Corrections Harold Clarke, whose command of the agency had been openly criticized by employees and legislators, announced Friday he is resigning to take a new job running the prison system in Massachusetts.

Gov. Chris Gregoire accepted Clarke’s letter of resignation and named Chief Deputy Secretary Eldon Vail as the department’s interim leader. Clarke’s last day will be Nov. 23.

Gregoire made Clarke one of her first Cabinet appointments when she hired him in January 2005 from Nebraska, where he had run that state’s prison system.

She wanted him to overhaul Washington’s correction agency and deploy programs to help convicted offenders succeed outside prison and not return to a life of crime.

In the process, his management style angered prison workers and community corrections officers, who contemplated a vote of no confidence.

He faced the wrath of the public in late 2006 after the deaths of three King County law enforcement officers, in separate incidents, at the hands of felons on community supervision.

In February, criticism was renewed when 83 felons locked up for violating terms of their community supervision were granted early release from jail cells in King and Snohomish counties.

Gregoire said she was outraged by the move and ordered the department to tighten its rules regarding early releases.

Friday, in a prepared statement, she praised his contributions to public safety.

Then, in an apparent nod to the challenges he endured, she said: “This has not been an easy task for Harold or his family and, on behalf of the people of Washington, I thank him for his service.”

Clarke did not reply to a request for an interview.

In a two-page letter to department employees, he wrote, “The prospect of leaving so many friends and fellow corrections professionals causes me much sadness.”

He said he will be moving closer to family and looked forward to “new challenges” in Massachusetts.

Clarke will oversee an agency with 5,000 workers, 18 facilities housing 11,000 inmates and a $500 million budget. By comparison, Washington’s corrections department has a roughly $900 million annual budget, 8,000 employees and a prison population of 18,000.

Speculation that Clarke might be looking to leave mounted with chief deputy secretary Vail’s hiring last month. Vail retired in May 2006 after a 31-year career in which his last post was prisons deputy secretary.

Clarke tapped him to fill a newly created second-in-command position. Gregoire told reporters Oct. 15 the hiring of Vail did not mean Clarke’s job was in jeopardy. Nor did she reveal any knowledge that he was a finalist for the Massachusetts post.

Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, one of Clarke’s strongest critics in the Legislature, welcomed his exit.

“I am happy because he’s had a very deplorable record. He did a terrible job,” said Pearson, the ranking Republican member of the House public safety committee.

“There were flaws in the system, and Harold Clarke knew about it and did nothing to alleviate them,” he said.

Workers passed on a no-confidence vote when Gregoire intervened to set up a process that required Clarke to talk regularly with employees.

“There was a perception that Secretary Clarke wanted to keep employees at arm’s length and not engage in dialogue,” said Tim Welch, director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of State Employees. The union represents 1,500 department employees.

“We wish him the best of luck,” Welch said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfieldheraldnet.com.

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