The cycle of failures at the state Department of Corrections remains unacceptably alive.
The DOC found six Monroe Correctional Complex inmates, three of whom died, suffered under negligent care by the center’s head doctor, as The Times’ Jim Brunner reported. While Dr. Julia Barnett has been fired for misconduct and investigators are working to determine if she bears responsibility for four additional inmate deaths there, the agency must undertake broader reforms.
The waves of dysfunction that have roiled DOC under Gov. Jay Inslee’s watch are too much to tolerate.
Within the last four years, the DOC has disclosed two separate failures at tracking inmate sentences have set thousands of prisoners free early. This past spring, DOC leaders abruptly banned book donations to prisoners under the pretext contraband was coming in via books. This was later proven false by The Times’ reporting, and the ban was reversed.
Now the tragic consequences of Barnett’s failures at the Monroe prison must be added to that list. DOC’s failures there began when Barnett was hired. She lacked two stated qualifications for the job: a DOC-approved medical residency and board certification. Yet the agency — unable, officials said, to attract better candidates — brought her onboard for a $260,000-a-year role supervising doctors and nurses who care for 2,400 inmates.
Prison health care is a notoriously difficult endeavor, but it is an absolute necessity for the human rights of the captive population. The DOC justified Barnett’s hire in March 2017 by counting her experience for an Arizona prison health-care contractor as a substitute for credentials. Prison medicine is too critical for inadequate qualifications to be papered over. The personnel department should be required to hold fast to job requirements instead of risking inmate lives by hastily filling a position.
Even worse was the DOC’s long-running failure to keep close watch on conditions in the Monroe prison health system. Although alleged patterns of poor treatment within Monroe predate Barnett’s tenure, the excruciating and sometimes fatal ordeals sick inmates faced under her 19-month tenure are intolerable. Written records from the prison point toward a callous disregard for inmate health.
DOC administrators now promise to keep closer watch on each prison’s medical conditions and review deaths more closely, but that commitment is mightily overdue. The seven questionable deaths under Barnett’s watch require a public accounting for why inexcusable conditions were allowed to persist so long and for why Washington’s prisons keep failing to perform adequately.