Inslee Names New Department of Corrections Secretary

Can the new guy bring stability to a department that has had four leaders in the last two years?

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee is again turning to a veteran manager in the Department of Corrections to run the agency as it continues rebuilding its credibility after the mistaken early release of hundreds of convicted criminals.

Inslee on Tuesday named Stephen Sinclair as the new corrections secretary. It ends a yearlong process to replace Dan Pacholke, who quit amid a tense Senate probe into errors allowing those inmates to get out of prison between 2002 and 2015.

“We found the right person for the job,” Inslee told reporters. “I think Steve’s talents are exactly what we need. I feel very confident in his ability to lead this group.”

Sinclair, who had been assistant secretary of the prisons division, beat out two finalists in the national search. His appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

“Governor Inslee’s faith in me and selection of me to lead the Department of Corrections is an honor for which I am both humbled and grateful,” Sinclair said in an email. “Coming through the ranks of the department, I have a deep admiration and appreciation for the daily work of the staff in our facilities and the community. I am strongly committed to ensuring the agency continues to emphasize safety and security for staff and incarcerated people.”

This is the third corrections secretary appointed by Inslee and all three have come from within the agency ranks. The governor expressed no reservations.

“We did talk to people from around the country. We talked to several candidates intensely. This person fit the job best,” he said. “I am sure there are many good leaders in correctional industries in the United States. I don’t think a good decision is to eliminate people in your own state.”

Sinclair, 51, began his career in Washington as a corrections officer 28 years ago. He has been an investigator, sergeant, associate superintendent, superintendent and deputy director, according to the governor’s office.

Inslee met Sinclair when the latter served as superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. That’s where the governor learned of Sustainable Practices Lab, a program created by Sinclair to provide inmates with job training to help them find work when released. Inslee said the program helps reduce recidivism.

Sinclair succeeds Jody Becker, who has been acting secretary since January. She will stay on as a deputy secretary.

Sinclair will be counted on to bring stability to a department that has had four leaders since Bernie Warner, Inslee’s first corrections secretary, departed in October 2015 for a private sector job.

That month, Pacholke, a 33-year agency employee, took over. Two months later came the discovery that an error in the computing of sentences led to as many as 3,200 inmates getting out of prison before serving their full term.

Pacholke moved swiftly to carry out measures to correct the mistakes as ordered by Inslee. Those included recalculating sentences for every person still behind bars.

But Pacholke resigned suddenly Feb. 6, 2016, angered by the investigation of the Republican-led Senate Law and Justice Committee that he said sought to shame and blame workers for what happened.

After his departure, Richard Morgan, a former director of prisons, agreed to come out of retirement and serve as acting secretary for several months in 2016. He gave way to Becker.

Inslee never mentioned the mistaken release of inmates in his comments Tuesday.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, served on the Senate committee that conducted the investigation of the release errors.

“I hope he’ll bring credibility and trust back to the agency,” he said. “We want our agencies running well so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Pearson’s district includes the Monroe Correctional Complex. He’s become a quiet but fierce advocate of providing greater safety measures for workers, especially since the 2011 murder of corrections officer Jayme Biendl.

“I hope he has a good understanding of the safety and security needs of the correction officers and can help them with what they must deal with inside the prisons,” Pearson said.

A representative for the corrections officers union had little reaction to Sinclair’s promotion.

“Our job is to promote the excellent work our members do in keeping our communities safe, protect their rights under their contract, and ensure that their workplace is as safe as possible given the environment,” said Michelle Woodrow with Teamsters Local 117. “We look forward to working with Secretary Sinclair to achieve those goals.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.