In the wake of the murder of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl, state officials asked for the National Institute of Corrections to survey Monroe's operation and offer suggestions for changes to improve officer safety.
The federal investigators released their report this week, calling on officers to wear personal body alarms and carry pepper spray to improve their safety. They suggest fewer inmates per cell and improved training. Those and other recommendations from the panel must be part of the state’s strategy to respond to the murder of the 34-year-old prison officer, who had been with the department since 2002.
It was the evening of Jan. 29, at 9:14 p.m. when the staff in the Washington State Reformatory Unit at Monroe conducted a routine count of offenders and discovered that an inmate was missing. The offender, Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist, was found three minutes later in chapel lobby and told officers he had planned to escape.
An hour later staff members completed an inventory of equipment and discovered that a correctional officer’s keys and radio were missing. Staff members immediately went to the chapel where she worked and found her unresponsive. The staff conducted CPR and called for immediate medical assistance. Emergency responders declared officer Biendle dead at the scene at 10:49 p.m. and the prison was placed on immediate lockdown.
Scherf has pleaded not guilty to aggravated first-degree murder in Snohomish County Superior Court and could face the death penalty if convicted. According to court documents, Scherf earlier confessed to killing Biendl, saying he was angry with the way she spoke to him minutes earlier.
Eldon Vail, superintendent of the Department of Corrections, said, “We will look for ways to make prisons safer for our staff in addition to the actions we have already taken. We recognize every correctional agency can find ways to improve and are working closely with the National Institute of Corrections to find additional steps we can take to ensure the safety of our staff members.
Among a handful of state reviews, the governor asked for an outside review from the National Institute of Corrections which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. The institute provides training, policy development and other services to federal, state, and local corrections agencies.
Now Vail and Gregoire have the blueprint for progress, not just at Monroe, but across the state’s prison system. Among more than a dozen safety improvements are:
Adding custody staff at all major facilities who are responsible for ensuring the whereabouts of all prison employees.
Evaluating and enhancing the radio system to include moving panic buttons to the microphone area.
Piloting a proximity card system at the Washington State Reformatory and the Washington State Penitentiary to track staff locations. Follow up with installation at all facilities.
Developing a standardized statewide system for proximity cards, body alarms and video surveillance systems to present to the Legislature.
Developing curriculum and training all first-level supervisors on enhanced security awareness to combat complacency.
Temporarily reducing overcrowding in prisons, including stopping double-bunking at the Washington State Reformatory.
Vail promised to move forward quickly on the action plan. “We must be responsible with these actions as many will change long-standing ways of doing business,” Vail said. “It is important to give each action item a thoughtful review to ensure these resources will be used efficiently.”
The correction’s chief said he’s confident that the plan will improve safety in state prisons.
This state’s prison system is not immune from violence. Our prisons are filled with inmates who have violent pasts, convicts facing long sentences and those serving life without parole who have little to live for. Officers are at great personal risk every time they put on their uniform and step inside the barbed wire. They know that, yet they continue to serve the public with great dedication and valor.
The key is to ensure that safety is the top priority. The national report puts the state on that path. It’s up to the governor, correction’s chief and legislators to ensure the recommendations from the federal panel are incorporated into daily life inside the walls of Washington’s prisons.