Safety’s enemy: complacency

A federal agency’s review of the Monroe Correctional Complex following the murder of corrections officer Jayme Biendl contains 15 recommendations to improve policies, practices, protocols and technology that should enhance safety.

It points out problems — a lack of personal body alarms for officers, for example. It also notes things that aren’t a problem, including the “very adequate” ratio of staff to inmates.

One paragraph in the 26-page report, however, underscores what may be the biggest ongoing challenge:

“Complacency can exist among corrections staff at every level which may lull them into a false sense of security. Recognizing that complacency occurs periodically in all correctional environments is important.”

Indeed, complacency seemed to be a common thread in a long chain of events that may have contributed to Biendl’s death in the prison chapel Jan. 29. Inmate Byron Scherf, a convicted rapist who was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole, is charged with strangling Biendl. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Despite a warning by prison officials a decade ago that Scherf posed a particular risk to women working at the prison, he had been allowed to volunteer as a clerk in the chapel, a post supervised by one officer at a time, including Biendl. It seems clear he shouldn’t have had such freedom.

Hindsight suggests surveillance cameras should have been mounted inside the chapel, and that systems should have been in place to more frequently account for officers’ and inmates’ whereabouts.

But in a prison system that hadn’t experienced an officer death in more than three decades, and a complex in which assaults on officers had declined over the previous five years, a false sense of security may have crept in.

That’s not to say greater vigilance, or even following all the recommendations made by the National Institute of Corrections, can guarantee safety in what is inherently dangerous work. But every responsible effort must be made to learn from this tragedy, and Gov. Chris Gregoire and Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail vowed Monday to do all they can to keep officers safe. Biendl and her fellow officers deserve no less.

Vail outlined a 19-point action plan that addresses the federal recommendations, and an internal investigation now under way may yield more ideas. Some steps can begin immediately, such as providing shoulder-mounted panic buttons, and ensuring that officers’ whereabouts and well-being are monitored more frequently. The practice of inmate volunteers will end for now, and all life-without-parole cases are being reviewed.

Other steps will require money and thus legislative approval, such as piloting a proximity card system to track staff locations. All steps will require careful and collaborative thought, with full input from officers and mental-health staff.

And all should include strategies that guard against security’s greatest enemy: complacency.

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