Commentary: Reforms at state prisons protecting lives, safety

Reforms by lawmakers and the Department of Corrections are addressing the needs of all concerned.

By Stephen Sinclair

For The Herald

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, roughly 1,000 people go to work at the Monroe Correctional Complex. They are correctional officers, nurses, physicians, warehouse workers, office assistants and more.

They are your friends, family and neighbors. They are also part of the larger Department of Corrections family — a family committed to one of the state’s most important missions: improving public safety. Every day, we work together for safer communities, rising to the challenge of improving public safety by positively changing the lives of some of the highest risk individuals who come from our communities and into our custody.

While our mission is constant, we are continuously reviewing how we achieve that mission and seeking ways to improve our service to our communities and the incarcerated individuals in our care. Sen. Mike Padden’s commentary Sunday, Aug. 25 in The Herald (“Years after scandal, corrections reforms idled”), fails to recognize that work and downplays recent corrections reforms both in the Legislature and at the agency level.

When Gov. Jay Inslee appointed me as secretary of the Department of Corrections a little over two years ago, my mission was to find problems and fix them. I’ve had a laser focus on that mission since I started. For example, the department identified a new challenge in how we were calculating community supervision sentences earlier this year. We immediately implemented a strike team and hired 70 more employees to tackle the issue; and we continue to take action to make sure sentences are accurate for those in community custody. This is vastly different from the way the agency approached the sentencing challenges raised in 2012, which weren’t addressed until December 2015.

Similarly, we’ve instituted a number of reforms based on the recent news regarding our former medical director at the Monroe Correctional Complex. We’ve created a clinical Mortality Review Committee to look into all deaths at our facilities, established a statewide patient safety committee, expanded the clinical oversight process and scheduled an audit of the complex to identify any other areas we should address. Our goal is to seek accreditation of our correctional heath care system through a nationally recognized organization that credentials state departments of corrections, but this will require resources and support of the Legislature.

Across our enterprise, we are redeploying resources to address critical needs like criminal records and health services, shifting our culture to ensure respectful and inclusive interactions that encourage staff to speak out and rolling out an outcome-based management system to better engage line staff in problem-solving and process improvement.

At the same time, the Legislature passed several reforms that are actively underway — including creating an Office of the Corrections Ombuds, with whom we work cooperatively to address concerns from our incarcerated populations. Corrections is also an active member of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and helped create recommendations to the Washington State Criminal Sentencing Task Force to improve community supervision and simplify sentencing. I’m proud to be a member of this Task Force and will continue to be an active participant in the efforts to improve our criminal justice system.

We remain committed to reforms to improve our corrections system for our communities, the incarcerated individuals we serve and for our staff. We’ll be bringing forth requests for additional support to continue to upgrade our offender management computer system, to increase our ability to provide quality health care to the incarcerated individuals in our care and to ensure we have the staff and resources necessary to operate a high-quality correctional system.

We’ll be counting on Sen. Padden and his legislative colleagues to be there for our agency and for the communities and incarcerated individuals we serve.

Stephen Sinclair is the secretary of the Washington state Department of Corrections. He was appointed to the Cabinet-level post in April 2017.

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