Staff at Monroe Correctional Complex overcomes adversity

The impact of budget cuts at the Department of Corrections has been well documented, particularly at the state’s largest prison, Monroe Correctional Complex. There have been layoffs, positions have gone unfilled, and there’s a smaller administrative staff and less money for supplies, tra

ining and equipment.

I don’t mention any of this to gain public sympathy. Families across the state, including here in Snohomish County, have less money to spend in the wake of the Great Recession. My goal is to provide a local perspective of how statewide budget cuts have impacted the men and women who work at Monroe Correctional Complex.

Since 2008 DOC has reduced its spending by more than $270 million. By next spring we will have closed our third prison within a year. We’re still responsible for incarcerating more than 16,000 offenders — we just have fewer resources with which to do so.

Monroe Correctional Complex has not been immune from the multiple rounds of budget cuts. There is less money for offender programs like chemical dependency and education. That means offenders have more idle time and have less access to programs that are proven to reduce the likelihood that they return to prison. Most staff members must take one-day temporary layoffs each month. Some staff members have been relocated to other prisons or field offices elsewhere in the state because someone with more seniority had a right to their position. Some staff members have been displaced multiple times within the past year.

It’s not like Monroe Correctional Complex was a bloated bureaucracy to begin with, either. When I left the agency in the mid-1990s Monroe had three superintendents and six associate superintendents. Today the offender population is 20 percent higher, yet there is only one superintendent and three associate superintendents who manage a prison that houses more than 2,500 offenders in five distinct units.

The sheer size of the facility — 2 million square feet of building space located on 340 acres — makes Monroe an inherently challenging place to operate. It houses a large, diverse offender population that ranges from minimum-security offenders who are near their release date all the way to high-risk offenders who remain in their cells 23 hours a day and everyone in between. The multiple rounds of budget cuts and uncertainty have made a difficult job even more so.

Yet, somehow, the staff members at Monroe and elsewhere continue to succeed. Prison violence continues to drop, even as the offender population becomes higher risk. The Special Offender Unit and Minimum Security now coordinate to help seriously mentally ill offenders successfully transition back to their communities. The Twin Rivers Unit continues to draw national and international praise for its Sex Offender Treatment Program. The newest unit, the Intensive Management Unit, is routinely rated by offenders as one of the best of its kind in the state. And the oldest unit, the Washington State Reformatory, recently celebrated 100 years of excellence.

Monroe also has become a key player in our effort to make prisons more sustainable. Offenders now operate organic gardens to supplement their diets. They repair wheelchairs and gurneys to help us avoid replacing expensive equipment. They sort garbage and recyclable materials to reduce waste, reduce landfill costs and reduce the prison’s impact on the local environment.

How does our staff succeed even under such adversity? I would love to say it’s because of outstanding leadership at headquarters, but I know the truth. After 30 years of working in corrections I’ve come to realize that the men and women who chose to work in this field are remarkably resilient, innovative and able to quickly adapt. It’s why we’re still successful, and it’s why I’m glad to be back in Washington.

Bernie Warner is the director of prisons for the state Department of Corrections.

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