Robert Munger was likely to die in prison. He was 70 years old when sentenced in December to serve at least 43 years for raping multiple children. But the violent beating that killed him in the Airway Heights Corrections Center was the latest of many state Department of Corrections failures. Accountability must go beyond Munger’s confessed killer and cellmate, Shane Goldsby.

Goldsby’s younger sister was reportedly one of Munger’s victims. Yet Munger and Goldsby, 25, were quartered together in clear violation of DOC policy. Goldsby told a KHQ-TV reporter he tried repeatedly to get moved, but was shrugged off. 

Authorities knew Goldsby was violent. His offenses include multiple assaults, as well as stealing a police car and ramming a State Patrol car with it in 2017. He told KHQ he has fought with prison guards more than 20 times. 

None of his convictions is homicide. He could have been free in his early 30s. Now he faces life. 

DOC policy states at least twice that Goldsby and Munger should have been kept away from each other. A separation policy last revised in 2011 prohibits “verified circumstances that exist that would put a staff or offender in jeopardy.” It requires regular reviews of inmates’ potential for conflicts. Another policy, on the books since 2015, places security issues atop the list of housing criteria. 

The problem is a system where rules can be so inadequately carried out. DOC must be held accountable for ineptly allowing so many tragic lapses. 

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Add Munger’s death to the voluminous evidence of recent years. Thousands of prisoners went free early because of two failures to track sentences. Book donations were banned for a time in 2019 under false pretenses. Inmates at Monroe Correctional Complex suffered and died due to negligent medical care, which undermined the prison’s pandemic response.

Multiple actions are needed. Goldsby must face justice. He allegedly threw the first punch and kept striking until Munger had a skull fracture. He claims Munger provoked him with rape talk, and that prison officials orchestrated violence by putting them together. The latter may violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” the U.S. Supreme Court has held. 

Such circumstances have led to deaths. In 1994, guards at Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institution stepped away and left serial cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer unsupervised with another murderer, who beat Dahmer to death. 

Dahmer had refused protective confinement. After that slaying, Wisconsin’s prison system eliminated inmates’ option to refuse protection.

“The whole system changed as a result of that murder,” Jeffrey Endicott, the now-retired warden of Columbia Correctional Institution at that time, told this editorial board. 

Washington should be as unsparing. The circumstances leading to Munger’s murder need to be fully reviewed. Personnel discipline and policy change must be on the table. 

As terrible as their crimes were, neither Munger nor Goldsby deserved each other. Now one is dead, and the other is looking at a life lost to prison walls because the DOC botched its responsibilities. Gov. Jay Inslee must be held responsible for this broken essential agency.