Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair will retire in May, capping a three-decade career that began as a correctional officer and ended with him running the state prison system for the past four years.
Sinclair announced his planned departure in an email to DOC employees Tuesday morning, calling it a “difficult decision, but one that I believe is best for me and my family.”
His decision comes as DOC faces burgeoning COVID-19 infections at multiple prisons, with widespread quarantines in effect. Ten incarcerated people have died, including three this month at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. Two correctional officers have died.
In his email to employees, Sinclair said DOC was “always prepared for a pandemic” but “I am not sure any of us actually thought we would experience it on the level we have.”
He added: “We have experienced so much tragedy. Most importantly we lost two of our own,” naming correctional officers Berisford Morse and David Christensen, who died of COVID-19.
Sinclair’s departure will leave Gov. Jay Inslee with a second hiring decision at a major state agency. Last week, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine, under fire for massive unemployment fraud losses and delays in benefit payments, announced she is leaving for a job in the Biden administration.
Under Sinclair’s watch, DOC has faced criticism from advocates and families of inmates for shoddy medical care at state prisons, including lapses in cancer treatment, leading to deaths, lawsuits and legal settlements.
Melody Simle, a longtime advocate for incarcerated people and their families, said Sinclair had “good intentions,” but failed to connect enough with inmate families to improve conditions and reduce recidivism.
She hopes Inslee will nominate a successor who didn’t come up through the DOC ranks. “We really need some culture change at that agency,” said Simle, who served for years on the DOC’s Family Council. “We need a visionary.”
After serving in the U.S. Army, Sinclair was hired as a correctional officer at Walla Walla State Penitentiary in 1988. He worked his way up, becoming an investigator, sergeant, and eventually a prison superintendent and assistant DOC secretary.
As DOC secretary, Sinclair manages a penal system with nearly 15,000 incarcerated at the state’s dozen prisons, and another 20,000 people under community supervision.
Inslee, who appointed Sinclair as secretary in 2017, praised him in a statement, saying he’d led on issues from reducing violence in prisons to staff retention and establishing programs to help keep people from re-offending.
Sinclair, who declined an interview request Tuesday, has won plaudits from some state lawmakers for striving to fix medical-care problems, and for being willing to take on big-picture issues such as the pitfalls of mass incarceration and associated racial disparities.
“He has had a very tough job and handled it very ably,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the state House Public Safety Committee, in an interview. “It’s been a great pleasure to work with him.”
Goodman said Sinclair notified him about his retirement with a text message Tuesday and the two men followed up with a phone call. He said there was “no other reason” for the DOC leader’s decision other than “finishing off a long career” and enjoying a “well-compensated retirement.”
State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Law & Justice Committee, credited Sinclair with “a good faith effort to deal with an agency that is a very difficult agency to run.”
But, he noted, “they continue to have major issues,” including the COVID-19 outbreak at multiple prisons.
Padden also pointed to the former top director at Monroe Correctional Complex, who was fired in 2019 after allegations of incompetent medical care leading to several injuries and deaths. “She should never have been hired,” he said. (DOC has acknowledged the doctor, Julia Barnett, lacked some stated qualifications for the position. Her medical license was suspended in November.)
During a news conference Tuesday, Inslee said his office will search for Sinclair’s successor, seeking someone who can ensure inmates leaving state custody have job skills and help for mental health and substance abuse “to make sure they don’t re-offend.”
Inslee said he wants a DOC leader who can “administer the system in a fair and equitable and efficient way” and who will work with lawmakers on criminal-justice reform across the system, “so it actually is effective in reducing crime, rather than just lodging people at extraordinary expense.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Joseph O’Sullivan contributed to this report.