No-confidence vote in store for state corrections chief

Some state workers who supervise offenders after their release from prison think the job of Washington prison chief Harold Clarke is too big for him, are frustrated by his management style and want to hold a no-confidence vote on him and his administration.

The corrections policy committee of the Washington Federation of State Employees, the union that represents corrections employees who work outside the prisons, met Saturday and voted to ask the executive board of the 40,000-member union to hold a no-confidence vote in August.

The board will consider the request at its next meeting July 14 in Bellingham, union spokesman Tim Welch said.

The resolution calling for the vote said Clarke is perceived by staff at all levels as arrogant and prone to publicly humiliating those who speak in opposition and ill-prepared to manage an operation as large as the Department of Corrections in Washington state.

"Wow! I'm really surprised by that," Clarke said after hearing the allegations. He said he has been meeting monthly with employee focus groups and has implemented many of the changes they have suggested. "I've gotten thank-yous from them," he said.

He said he believes the critical beliefs are held by a relatively small group of prison system workers.

Clarke was hired by Gov. Chris Gregoire two years ago from Nebraska, where he was head of an agency one-quarter the size of Washington's 8,000 corrections employees.

"Nebraska's (prison system) is one-fourth the size of Washington's, but that doesn't really matter," Clark said. "It's the same business. It's how you deal with people that matters."

Discontent among prison workers has been brewing for months.

February meeting

Community corrections officers, formerly known as parole officers, met in February to talk about their concerns with Clarke and Tom Fitzsimmons, the governors chief of staff.

They complained about too much redundant paperwork that made it difficult for them to keep an eye on ex-offenders in the communities and lack of communication between Clarke's administration and front-line workers.

Fitzsimmons said Washington's prison system has been going through a lot of change since Clarke took the helm. But a no-confidence vote is not a necessary act to resolve conflicts between the prison chief and rank-and-file workers, he said.

Staffing and crowding

The prison population is at 18,000 and growing. There are too few prison and jail beds to house inmates, and new prison beds are more than 18 months away. Parole officers have large caseloads.

In addition, the agency is chronically short-staffed - it needs to hire 2,000 more employees over two years. Turnover is high and it takes a long time to fill vacant positions.

The agency is switching to a new $50 million computer system. Corrections officers have new rules for supervising offenders in the wake of the deaths of three officers at the hands of ex-convicts under community supervision.

And most recently, corrections officers have been tasked with implementing the $25 million Offender Reentry Initiative passed by the Legislature.

"There are a lot of things in the mix that clearly might be part of their frustration and concern," Fitzsimmons said.

Ton Johnson, president of Local 308 which represents state community corrections officers in King County, said the new supervision guidelines make it harder for his members to send ex-convicts back to prison or jail for breaking the rules of their release.

"There's a very strong push on CCOs not to confine people," Johnson said. "Be honest with folks. Let's have our policy close match community expectations."

Welch said any no-confidence vote would take place among the 1,448 prison system employees represented by the federation. That includes 765 community corrections officers and their support staff members.

Clarke said he doesn't know how a no-confidence vote would turn out, but "we're going to keep on pushing in the direction we are to make sure we have the doors open and that they have what they need to get their jobs done.

"I'm not saying they're going to get everything they want, but well keep working with them," he said.