Washington state corrections officers should be issued body alarms to alert colleagues when they are in trouble, a federal agency is recommending.
MONROE — Corrections officers will be armed with pepper spray and fitted with easier-to-access panic buttons after a federal prison advisory group recommended the state better protect prison staff from inmate violence.
The recommendations by the National Institute of Corrections follow a review requested by Gov. Chris Gregoire after the Jan. 29 slaying of Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex. A prison inmate has been charged in her slaying.
Speaking at the prison on Monday morning, Gov. Chris Gregoire said that she agreed with the analysis by the National Institute of Corrections, which also said the state needs to do a better job of keeping track of on-duty corrections staff and review whether violent inmates and those serving life sentences should have access to certain areas of the state’s prisons.
“This facility is a well-run facility; good work is being done here,” Gregoire said of the Monroe prison. “Can we do a better job?” she added. “Absolutely.”
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Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Eldon Vail said that the panic button on the hip radios of state corrections officers will be moved to an easier-to-access spot on their shoulders. He also said that some corrections officers would be given pepper spray.
Currently, corrections officers are not armed, but they do have access to secured weapons-storage areas, and some prisons have armed officers on towers, Vail said.
Many other recommendations will be implemented as funding is made available from the Legislature, he said. Corrections is also looking at investing in personal body alarms for prison staff. The body alarms do not require the use of a radio, said DOC spokesman Chad Lewis.
The lack of body alarms means staff members must rely on radios, telephones or shouting if they need assistance, according to the report. Biendl had a radio, which was damaged when she was attacked.
Other recommendations from the National Institute of Corrections:
• Alter corrections officers’ work hours to maximize staffing levels.
• Create statewide prison advisory groups.
• Review how prisoners serving sentences of life in prison without parole are being supervised.
• Bar inmates from working in volunteer jobs behind prison walls.
• Reduce prison overcrowding.
“It’s time to get to work,” Vail said. “We owe it to Jayme and to the people of the state of Washington.”
The National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, provides training, technical assistance, information services and policy/program development assistance to federal, state and local corrections agencies.
The Department of Corrections plans to conduct an internal review into Biendl’s slaying, which is also being investigated by the state Department of Labor & Industries.
Byron Scherf, 52, a “three-strikes” repeat rapist serving a life sentence, has been charged in her slaying and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Scherf has pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder.
According to probable-cause documents, which outline the case against Scherf, he told detectives that Biendl said something that offended him while they were in the prison chapel the night she was slain. Scherf said it “triggered a response in me.”
Scherf said he waited for everyone to leave the prison chapel and then strangled her, according to the documents.
But corrections officers didn’t find Biendl’s body for more than an hour. Her radio was last activated at 8:28 p.m., but there was no communication, DOC officials said. The radio was found in three pieces, with a cord disconnected from the mouthpiece and the body of the radio, according to Monroe police, who investigated her slaying.
Tracey Thompson, secretary of Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers, said the recommendations are a good start. “But there is no mechanism that they will be implemented,” she said.
Thompson also worried the state’s $5 billion budget deficit will delay safety improvements that cost money.
“We’re not very optimistic about what the end result will be,” she said.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.