Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t go far to find a successor for retiring state prisons chief Steve Sinclair.
The governor Thursday named state government veteran Cheryl Strange — now secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) — as the new secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Inslee made the announcement at an afternoon news conference, emphasizing Strange should prioritize efforts to improve prison health care and prepare incarcerated people for life after prison.
“We want you to have a life outside of our system,” Inslee said. “The goal here is reduce crime.”
Strange has led DSHS, the state’s largest agency, since 2017. Before that, she served as CEO of Western State Hospital, the state’s troubled psychiatric facility, which was stripped of $53 million a year in federal funding in 2018 after failing inspections.
Strange has experience at DOC, having served as deputy secretary from 2008 to 2011. She will be the first woman in the DOC secretary post.
When she assumes her new role May 15, Strange will lead a prison system that has been under heavy scrutiny for failing to provide adequate health care to incarcerated people, including those with cancer, leading to deaths and lawsuits.
A critical report by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, which detailed continuing cancer-care failures, was delivered to Inslee shortly before Sinclair’s January announcement that he was retiring.
Asked Thursday whether he had asked for Sinclair’s resignation or retirement, Inslee refused to answer, calling it “irrelevant at this point.” He praised Sinclair for making progress on DOC goals, including increased vocational training.
In addition to the health care concerns, Strange will inherit a demand for reforms, some underway, aimed at correcting racial inequities by vastly reducing prison populations and helping incarcerated people ease back into outside communities.
Strange said she looks forward to strengthening support programs that will make a difference for people leaving prison to help ensure they don’t wind up coming back.
“It’s jobs, it’s housing, and it’s treatment,” she said. “Those three things can make for a safe return home.”
In addition to her government experience, Strange previously was vice president at the nonprofit Pioneer Human Services, where she worked on issues including reentry and work release, according to a governor’s office news release.
Inslee’s office announced a national search is underway for a new DSHS secretary.
Sinclair, who was appointed DOC secretary by Inslee in 2017, announced his retirement in January after more than three decades at the department, beginning as a correctional officer.