Politics & Government

State workers say they were punished for blowing whistle on prison violence stats

Two state employees say they were demoted for exposing skewed statistics on prison violence.

The state Department of Corrections announced early last year that it had made headway in quelling inmate violence in cell blocks in two Eastern Washington prisons where it was trying out behavioral classes and positive reinforcement.

Researcher Teri Herold-Prayer of Lacey and her boss, Michael Evans of Olympia, said they told Corrections administrators the reports of success were false.

The employees cited a study by Washington State University, but they said the agency still went on to describe a pilot project as a successful program to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office and to the Legislature, which provided $1.8 million last year to expand the program.

“It’s not reducing violence in prison,” Herold-Prayer said.

The workers say they faced retaliation for saying so. Their lawyer says a legal complaint was served on the state last week and will be filed this month in Pierce County Superior Court.

The Corrections Department said in a statement that it’s “a nationwide leader in developing groundbreaking evidence-based strategies.” The agency declined to specifically address matters under litigation.

REWARDS FOR BEHAVIOR

However, the agency has explained its pilot project in the past.

Started in 2012, it centered on two 130-inmate “pods” at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center near the Tri-Cities.

Inmates were moved there from around the state to take part in the pilot project, said Herold-Prayer, who studied the program along with WSU researchers who she said were working under a $55,000 contract.

Corrections officers were trained to offer verbal praise and give out short-term rewards along with swift and consistent consequences, according to a Corrections blog post on the program. Inmates earned coupons that could be redeemed for “small rewards and privileges, such as preferential haircut appointments, photographs to send home or, with enough coupons, they can check out TV remotes for their cells or bring to their cells materials and tools for hobbies.”

Inmates learned about behavior, problem-solving and social skills in classes known as Thinking for a Change, according to Corrections. As they advanced through the class, they earned extra privileges such as watching movies, preference for inmate jobs and even the ability to request transfers to prisons of their choice, although Herold-Prayer said, in practice, those requests often weren’t fulfilled.

Herold-Prayer said the program shows promise to help offenders re-adjust to society when they are near release.

But Corrections has said it’s trying to move such programs earlier in inmates’ sentences to give them more time to try out their skills before they start the transition to freedom.

DIFFERENT MEASUREMENTS

Researchers and officials reach different conclusions — at least partly — because they are making two very different comparisons.

WSU produced a Nov. 15, 2012, interim report that compared the inmates who participated in the program with an unaffected control group. The control group was assembled using inmates who matched the ones in the experimental group on factors including age, race, education, gang affiliation, crime and sentence.

Researchers looked at when inmates broke the rules and when they filed grievances about their treatment, both before the program started and after six months.

A comparison in the overall numbers of infractions, violent and nonviolent, did show differences, according to a copy of the report provided by the plaintiffs.

But the report also found: “For violent infractions and grievances, results indicated that there was not a significant change over time for in-program and control participants.”

A WSU researcher said those results account for only the first group of inmates to go through the program. A second group followed later and findings are due out this fall, said Jacqueline van Wormer, an assistant professor at WSU. No “solid finding” can come until both groups are analyzed, she said.

But just a few months after the initial report, Corrections was publicly citing a “dramatic decrease in violence” over the program’s first nine months.

The agency’s blog post didn’t use WSU’s control group or try to create another matching group. Instead, it compared the pods in the pilot project with neighboring pods.

The experimental pods had 75 percent fewer violent infractions, the agency wrote.

It’s difficult to know how well the histories and characteristics of the two groups matched up, or even whether the figures are accurate, without more information from Corrections. Herold-Prayer said the neighboring group housed inmates waiting to go into the program.

The agency’s blog post quoted Amy Seidlitz, assistant secretary of the agency’s Offender Change Division, as saying it was proof the efforts are changing inmate behavior, and Dan Pacholke, then the prisons chief and now deputy secretary for operations, as saying it was increasing staff safety. State officials had been under pressure to improve worker safety after an inmate killed corrections officer Jayme Biendl at Monroe Correctional Complex in 2011.

WORKERS DEMOTED

Seidlitz showed the 75 percent difference to Inslee’s then-chief of staff, the legal complaint says. “This report was false,” the complaint says. “The report provided to the chief of staff was deliberately skewed by manipulating the control group.”

Corrections said in its statement: “We work closely with independent academic institutions to ensure fidelity of the research process, which helps us protect Washington citizens while providing the best opportunities for offenders to change their lives for the better.”

The workers say Herold-Prayer reported the discrepancy up the chain of command, including to Evans, who took it to Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner. They accuse Warner of reporting the same figures to the Legislature, which provided money to expand the pilot project to Monroe and to minimum-security inmates.

They also allege Seidlitz worked to abolish Herold-Prayer’s and Evans’ positions.

Herold-Prayer, who has two masters’ degrees, said she was demoted from a research manager to what she said is an entry-level analyst position and was removed from meetings about the pilot program, she said.

Evans, who like Herold-Prayer has worked at the agency since 2010, stayed in management but saw his pay level bumped down.

They appealed their demotions and filed whistle-blower complaints, according to the legal complaint, which also says the agency hasn’t provided requested public records.

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