Work continues to address safety issues at Monroe prison after murder of corrections officer

  • By Rikki King and Eric Stevick Herald Writers
  • Friday, October 14, 2011 12:01am
  • Local NewsMonroe

MONROE — The state Department of Corrections still must address workplace safety hazards documented at the Washington State Reformatory after officer Jayme Biendl was killed on duty last January.

The corrections department in July was fined $26,000 by the state Department of Labor & Industries, which conducted a six-month investigation into working conditions at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Corrections officials were ordered to make changes, mostly concerning how prison employees are given directions for their posts and how they document the movement of inmates and other staffers around the prison.

The corrections department in August appealed part of the fine and contested one of the more serious violations. It also provided documentation of attempts to address each violation.

Progress has been made, but corrections officials aren’t done fixing problems at the prison, L&I spokesman Hector Castro said.

Corrections officials have been cooperative and were given a 30-day extension, he said.

“We have no expectation that they won’t follow through with this,” he said.

Biendl, 32, was attacked at her post at the Washington State Reformatory chapel on Jan. 29. She wasn’t found for almost two hours. Inmate Byron Scherf, 53, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder and faces the possibility of the death penalty.

L&I later concluded the attack on Biendl would have been discovered earlier had better policies been in place and existing procedures been followed.

The original fine included a serious violation that was a repeat of a similar violation at another prison. A serious violation is one that creates the likelihood of workplace death or injury.

The fine was successfully appealed by the corrections department because L&I officials decided the violation wasn’t similar enough to the previous one to count as a repeat, Castro said. The total fine was adjusted to $19,500.

The corrections department now needs to readdress 10 hazards of the 16 listed in the original report, Castro said.

For example, the L&I review showed that prison staffers didn’t have rules on how to respond to possible emergency transmissions from officers’ radios. A sound described by some as a muffled scream was heard over the prison radio system the night Biendl died.

The corrections department began using new radios with panic buttons, but prison officials need to set procedures to check on officers whose radios emit strange clicks or other sounds, even when the panic button isn’t depressed, L&I reported.

The department also needs to change the way staffers are trained to report unsafe working conditions, and how those reports are processed by management, L&I inspectors wrote.

Some people have questioned whether one state agency should fine another, Castro said. However, L&I is required by state law to treat government employers the same as private ones. That includes levying financial penalties.

Meanwhile, prison officials at Monroe are conducting separate disciplinary investigations involving seven officers who were on duty when Biendl died. Two were identified as lieutenants, one is a sergeant and four others are corrections officers. They could face several punishments, including letters of reprimand, demotions or being fired.

“We are about two weeks out on a resolution and when we will have a final decision,” Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said.

Monroe Correctional Complex Superintendent Scott Frakes will decide if misconduct occurred and, if it did, what disciplinary action to take against the individual officers.

The officers can appeal any disciplinary decision under their labor contract, Lewis said.

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

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