The murder of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl on the evening of Jan. 29 was a horrendous tragedy. Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist, must pay for his crime if convicted of Biendl's murder.
The governor, lawmakers, prison officials and Department of Correction employees are rightfully shaken and determined to improve prison safety as a result of Biendl’s strangulation death in the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory Unit at Monroe.
But we, as a state, must be careful not to overreact. The temptation, especially for state lawmakers approaching the end of their 105-day session here in Olympia, is to quickly pass a bill so they can go home later this month and say, “We reacted. We improved safety in our prison system.”
We agree that there absolutely must be a refocus on officer safety. That’s why we support Gov. Chris Gregoire’s bill that calls for personal body alarms and other safety measures for correction officers.
But we do not believe a revision of the state’s collective bargaining law for Corrections employees is warranted.
Separate the issues. Separate prison safety from collective bargaining. Pass a bill to bolster security, but leave the collective bargaining process in place. It’s not broken.
As horrific as Biendl’s murder is, the fact is, she is the first prison officer to lose his or her life in the line of duty in 32 years. History shows that for what is arguably the most dangerous job in state government, Washington state has a pretty good track record of protecting officers. Much of that record is based on the fact that officers care about and protect one another – just as it should be. It takes a special person – a devoted public servant – to get up every day, put on that uniform and muster the courage to go behind the barbed wire.
Prisons, by their very nature, have always been a treacherous and menacing place to work. But today, that’s especially true.
With sentencing guidelines and budget reductions, those inmates who are least likely to re-offend have already been released from state custody. As a result, Washington state has the 42nd lowest incarceration rate in the nation. We long ago moved away from the philosophy of “lock ’em up and throw away the key.”
Seventy percent of the 17,000 inmates locked behind bars in this state are serving time for some type of violent crime – rape, murder, assault. And among the 30 percent who are not incarcerated for a violent crime, half have a violent felony conviction on their record. What that means is our prisons today are filled with the worst of the worst.
That’s why it concerns us, and should concern all Washington residents, to hear state budget writers talk about releasing up to 800 offenders early in order to save money in the 2011-13 spending cycle. This proposal, on top of previous early releases and the $50 million savings two years ago when the state stopped parole supervision of 10,000 former inmates, puts public safety into question.
We’re at the point where we need to insist that those behind bars stay there until they’ve served their full sentence.
And the correction officers that supervise these violent felons deserve better protection, too. The federal investigation into Washington’s prison system in the wake of Biendl’s murder, put forth more than a dozen safety improvements, from body alarms to increasing staff levels, from enhancing radio systems to tracking staff movements.
Those are worthy endeavors and we are pleased to see House Democrats included $6 million in their budget proposal to enhance officer safety.
That’s a prudent course for lawmakers to follow.
But changing collective bargaining laws to give unions more say over staffing levels, equipment purchases, facilities and procedures inside the walls, is ill-advised. Turning over authority of prison management to an arbiter, which is what would happen, simply strips the Legislature and the executive branch of government of their collective right to manage this state’s prison system. That has huge budget implications down the road.
Officer safety is already a mandatory subject for union/management contract negotiations. State prisons chief Eldon Vail told The Olympian’s editorial board that the Teamsters union has not offered significant changes to the safety clause during the last two contract negotiations. That inattention to safety – on the part of both management and union – is likely reflective of the fact that there has not been an officer killed in the line of duty in more than three decades. We’ve become complacent.
Biendl’s murder – rightfully – shined the spotlight back on officer safety. The bills to adopt the federal safety recommendations and set aside money for those improvements are absolutely the right thing to do. Ceding power and authority over state-run prisons to an arbiter through the collective bargaining law is reactionary and should be rejected by lawmakers.