Commentary: Years after scandal, corrections reforms idled

Gov. Inslee has stood in the way of necessary reforms for the Department of Corrections.

By Mike Padden

For The Herald

How many scandals will it take before Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration finally acknowledges the need for reform at the state Department of Corrections?

Three prisoners died at the Monroe Correctional Center as a result of medical care that investigators have described as shockingly negligent. Other inmate deaths are under review. Last month we learned the medical director was fired for misconduct, but we can’t lay all the blame at her feet. This physician didn’t meet the minimum requirements for the position, and Corrections hired her anyway.

I hope this case will cause Inslee to concede at long last that the problems with this troubled agency start at the top, with his appointees and inadequate supervision from his office. Better yet, I hope this case will prompt lawmakers to pass legislation setting the agency straight.

Unfortunately, every time my colleagues and I make this argument, the governor bristles with indignation, faults the critics and declares any criticism to be a political potshot. It’s disrespectful, as the safety of the people of Washington and health of the state’s 20,000 inmates should matter more than that.

I doubt the families of Cesar Medina and Lindsay Hill would see this as a matter of politics. Medina and Hill were the innocent victims of a widely publicized case of Corrections mismanagement that came to light four years ago. A new computer system online since 2002 was programmed incorrectly, and some 3,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes were released as much as 20 months early.

The department’s failure to double-check its sentencing calculations was unconscionable and incompetent. But the truly galling thing was that Corrections learned of the problem in 2012, and did nothing to fix it for another three years.

In the meantime, Medina was shot to death in a botched Spokane robbery by a felon who should have been behind bars. Another killed Hill, a single mother, in a particularly gruesome drunk-driving accident. We still don’t know how many were victimized by other crimes, because Corrections never completed a full accounting.

At the time, Inslee commissioned a narrowly focused inquiry that blamed middle managers and failed by design to consider the responsibility of top-level management and the governor’s office. When the Senate launched an independent investigation, the governor said we were “out of control.” But what we found was disturbing.

Top-level Corrections managers displayed an astonishing lack of curiosity. Some who should have known said they just weren’t paying attention. We learned programming fixes were delayed while the agency’s director pursued a dream of a cutting-edge computer system. The governor’s office could have picked up on the problem but didn’t.

Just as important, we discovered an agency culture where everything came from the top down, and the concerns of frontline Corrections employees were given little attention. A history of management retaliation ensured worker silence. There was no effective way for them to blow the whistle.

Three years after we released our 1,000-page report, problems continue. Agency managers deserve credit for disclosing a similar sentencing problem earlier this year, but this latest issue raises new concerns. It will be important to learn whether this one could have been caught before people had to die.

These systemic management problems are a concern for both political parties. We had bipartisan support for a Senate corrections reform bill in 2017, putting new structures in place at Corrections to head off future fiascos. The governor’s office quashed it in the House during the final hours of that legislative session.

We’ll be back in 2020 with a more comprehensive reform measure. It is not, as a spokesperson for the governor protested, an attempt “to make political points,” but an attempt to save lives. The governor is right to be embarrassed by the state of Department of Corrections management, but he is wrong to stand in the way of meaningful reform.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is the lead Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee.

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