Ever since Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl was murdered by an inmate at the Washington State Reformatory in 2011, the mood among state prison employees has been dark. This morning, hundreds of officers are expected to descend on Olympia to protest what they say are dangerous working conditions.
"No safety concerns have been dealt with," says Eric Smith, a corrections officer at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.Smith, a shop steward for Teamsters Local 117, which is organizing the march, says officers want legislators to pass a law that would allow for arbitratration when contract negotiations become stalled. Without a neutral third party, he claims, officers have had a hard time getting their concerns addressed by the Department of Corrections. "Every time we brought up safety issues, they balked," says Smith of the last negotiating sessions, which took place over the summer and fall.
Smith says he personally has nearly been killed three times, including once when he went into a cell to subdue an inmate, and the prisoner unsuccessfully tried to stick a piece of glass TV tubing into the officer's neck.
He also says that at the prison where he works, an officer sometimes works alone in a facility where inmates assemble clothing packages for other prisoners. This is a particularly sensitive subject given that Biendl worked alone outside the reformatory chapel when she was murdered.
What's more, Smith says, a recent "shake down" at the Shelton prison yielded "cartloads of contraband," such as metal objects that could be used for weapons. Then there was the riot last February at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, a video of which was leaked to KIRO-TV, and the attack of yet another officer in Monroe last summer.
Since the Biendl murder, the state has allocated more than $8 million in additional funding for safety measures, according to figures provided by DOC director of prisons Dan Pacholke. Just under $5 million of those funds is going toward the salaries of 18 new "security specialists," distributed among all the prisons in the state. These specialists work with superintendents to draw up safety plans and solicit suggestions from staff. "We've implemented nearly 800 of 1,000 suggestions," Pacholke says.
Other funds are going toward pilot programs testing out a card key system and body alarms, similar to the types of 911 panic buttons elderly people often wear around their necks.
But Smith argues that the DOC hasn't done enough. He says the security funds could be better used for extra line officers, rather than more administrators in a department he describes as "top heavy." Officers also want more security cameras and special equipment, like a chair that can detect metal on an inmate who sits on it, even if the would-be weapon is hidden away in someone's mouth or intimate body part.
Pacholke says he understands the sentiments. "Officers have witnessed some violent actions in recent years." And he notes that the governor's current budget proposal includes funding for more officers on certain shifts. Still, he insists the department is doing all it can and that adding an arbitrator into the mix would not help.
Some prison violence, he suggests is inevitable. "We've got a lot of bad people," he says. "And from time to time, they do bad things."