Tension takes toll at Monroe prison

  • By Rikki King, Scott North and Diana Hefley Herald Writers
  • Friday, March 25, 2011 12:01am
  • Local NewsMonroe

MONROE — Some corrections officers who worked alongside Jayme Biendl can’t help but feel like they let her down.

The anger, guilt and unanswered questions have been festering in private since Biendl was strangled at her

post Jan. 29.

People who could have checked on Biendl, and maybe kept her alive, weren’t where they were supposed to be, according to a corrections officer who was working at the Washington State Reformatory the night she was killed.

Monroe Correctional Complex officers should have noticed sooner that Biendl hadn’t left her post at the reformatory, said the man, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published. Officers should have realized a convicted rapist was alone with her inside the chapel, after all inmat

es should have been cleared from the area, the man said in multiple interviews.

“I feel like staff failed her,” he said. “Her backup failed her.”

Accusations have been flying among staff. Nasty comments have been yelled out at roll call meetings, he 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.

While detectives have been building their case against Scherf, the state Department of Corrections has been gearing up to investigate how an inmate could have attacked and killed a lone officer without attracting anyone’s attention.

Monroe police have conducted at least 160 interviews since Biendl’s death, spokeswoman Debbie Willis said. Corrections officers, inmates and visitors were questioned about Jan. 29 and events leading up to the killing.

Corrections officers were asked about where they were, what they saw and heard. Detectives continue to review those interviews and in some instances are following up with additional questions, Willis said.

A copy of the criminal investigation is expected to be shared with the corrections officials, who will be focusing on whether prison rules were followed.

“That was not our standpoint,” Willis said.

Willis said that from the beginning of the case, there has been a lot of information coming from different sources. Not all of it has been accurate, and everything may not get sorted out until the corrections department’s internal investigation is complete, she said.

Any time there is a public safety tragedy, whether it involves law enforcement or firefighters, there’s second-guessing, Willis said.

“You’re always going to see people looking at policies and procedures and if they were followed,” she said.

On Monday, state prison officials heard from federal corrections experts who studied the reformatory’s policies and protocols and found them lacking in key areas.

An internal investigation is supposed to begin next week. It will focus on exactly what happened behind the walls the night Biendl was killed, corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said.

He would not comment on what the officer told The Herald. He also declined to provide details that could have helped confirm the officer’s story, including where staff was in the prison that night and what policies and procedures were in place to govern their movement.

That sort of information will be the focus of the corrections department’s investigation, and by the time the probe is complete, officials should have a detailed, accurate understanding of whether the rules were followed, and if they were adequate, he said.

“It is not looking for blame. It is looking for a systemic issue, an execution issue,” Lewis said.

Biendl’s death marks the first killing of a corrections officer in a Washington prison since the late 1970s, and the first in the 101-year history of the reformatory. While this internal investigation carries special urgency, probes of this type are routine for the department, and a tool that in the past has been used to make the prison environment safer for officers, staff and inmates, Lewis said.

“The issues raised here will be addressed in the internal review,” Lewis said. ” … We will carefully study every aspect of the incident to determine if there are any improvements we can make. In the meantime, we will follow the recommendations made by (federal corrections experts) to help make sure the men and women who work in prisons are as safe as possible.”

Shortly after Biendl’s death, Gov. Chris Gregoire called for the independent review by a team from the National Institute of Corrections. Their report includes 15 recommendations.

Some of those focus on providing corrections officers with more tools to improve personal safety in an inherently dangerous environment. The team also recommended giving officers body alarms, pepper spray, more security cameras and additional safety training.

Other recommendations were geared toward making safety and vigilance a greater priority among corrections officers. More restrictive policies also were suggested for times when inmates are outside their cells and moving around the prison.

The team called for more frequent counts of inmates as they move to and from posts manned by a single officer, such as the chapel. There were detailed suggestions for more efficient and secure options for counting inmates, and for moving them between areas of the prison.

Requiring inmates to only be moved in closely supervised groups may require different staffing, but it likely would increase safety because many convicts won’t stand by and watch staff be attacked, the team said.

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

The team also found that operating rules at the chapel where Biendl worked may not have been clear. The written procedures indicate that the supervisor should be notified when a chapel officer leaves for the night. That didn’t appear to be happening “for a long time, if ever,” the team wrote. The investigators also specifically reviewed Scherf’s history at the prison, including his ability to become a volunteer clerk at the chapel. The team found that there is no screening process and it isn’t clear to investigators how Scherf was allowed to become a volunteer in an area supervised by a single female officer.

A 1997 report concluded that Scherf “has demonstrated that he will manipulate staff to get what he wants.” A 2001 mental health report concluded that he likely would be a danger to female corrections officers.

In the days after the killing, current and retired corrections officers and others familiar with prison operations anonymously contacted The Herald. Some wondered whether Biendl’s co-workers failed to follow safety procedures that they’d been taught. Some suggested staff were inadequately trained to recognize predatory inmates.

Others pressed the message the corrections officers’ union began pushing within hours of Biendl’s death, blaming staffing reductions and feckless prison administrators for unsafe conditions at the state’s prisons.

Federal investigators concluded that staffing at the reformatory is not only adequate, but that violence against staff at the reformatory is well controlled and on the decline.

The officer who talked to The Herald said many who have become the most vocal about working conditions at the reformatory simply don’t know what they are talking about. They work at other prisons inside the Monroe complex, such as the Special Offender Unit and the Twin Rivers Unit.

They also aren’t haunted, as he is, by the screech that came over the prison radio system the night Biendl was killed.

It was an unusual enough sound that he and others stopped and listened, waiting for a prison-wide alert that something was wrong. That didn’t happen. It was only later that they learned the radio screech occurred about the same time Biendl was fighting for her life.

Since her death, prison administrators have been blasted for not keeping the officer safe.

But on the ground inside the reformatory, officers are looking at each other, questioning where their colleagues were and what they were up to when it mattered most, the officer said.

“It’s the people at the bottom who let her down,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com

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