Two Republican state lawmakers Monday blasted Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration over revelations that at least three inmate deaths at Monroe Correctional Complex may have been linked to poor medical care, contending it’s the latest in a pattern of mismanagement at the Department of Corrections (DOC).
State Sens. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, called the prison health-care allegations “yet another major scandal” for DOC under Inslee’s watch, pointing to previous issues including sentencing-calculation errors that led to early releases and lawsuits.
“Incompetent leadership, high-profile blunders, costly lawsuits, inmates being released early and even deaths — that’s the record and legacy of Washington’s state prisons under Governor Inslee’s watch,” Padden, the ranking Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee, said in a statement.
In an interview, Padden said DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair “seems to be making an honest effort, but the results have been pretty poor.” He added: “It’s not an easy job, and I understand that, but these results are cumulative, and it’s too much.”
Padden and Wagoner said they’re working on legislation for the 2020 session aimed at addressing DOC failures but did not yet have detailed proposals.
‘Changes in the works’
Tara Lee, a governor’s office spokeswoman, said in an email that DOC “has had a lot of changes in the works long before Republicans attempted to make political points on this with a news release.”
Those actions include appointment of new leadership, a review board to examine situations when inmates die while under DOC medical care and a review of prison health-care delivery, Lee said.
Inslee was in Michigan on Monday, preparing for his appearance in the second round of Democratic presidential primary debates.
The latest round of criticisms came in response to a July 13 Seattle Times story, which reported that the medical director at Monroe Correctional Complex had been fired for misconduct on April 18 after a DOC investigation sharply faulted medical care she provided and supervised.
Dr. Julia Barnett has appealed her firing and denies the allegations against her.
In firing her, DOC administrators cited problems with treatment of six inmates, including three who died. Top DOC medical officials described the care some inmates had received as “shocking” and “negligence” leading to increased suffering and possibly contributing to deaths. The Washington Medical Commission is investigating those six cases and an additional four inmate deaths in 2017 and 2018.
DOC officials have acknowledged the agency hired Barnett as the chief doctor at the Monroe prison, even though she had not completed an approved residency and was not board certified — two stated requirements for the job. DOC deemed her overall experience “adequate” given her past work in a prison, a DOC spokesman said.
She was paid a salary of $260,000 at the time of her firing.
Wagoner, whose legislative district includes the Monroe prison, called the decision to hire Barnett “a failure of leadership at the highest level” and warned against scapegoating rank-and-file DOC staff.
“The folks who do all that hard, dangerous work every day deserve the tools and resources to do their jobs,” he said.
Doctor offers defense
In a letter to the medical commission dated May 20, Barnett offered lengthy defenses of her treatment of inmates in the cases cited by DOC, and called the complaint against her “a Gish Gallop, a lengthy listing of minor or nonexistent issues in an attempt to persuade by volume rather than substance.”
Barnett said the infirmary at Monroe prison was short-staffed and “a problematic place to care for sick people,” citing ventilation problems and inadequate heating and air conditioning — adding she had complained repeatedly about those issues. Her letter was released by the medical commission in response to a public-records request.
D. Jeffrey Burnham, Barnett’s attorney, told the commission in the May 20 letter that his client is “a wonderful, strong, competent physician” who may have “stirred up” staff at the prison by demanding more of them. (Medical staff at the prison submitted a vote of “no confidence” in Barnett in November, saying she’d created a “toxic” work environment and appeared to be making decisions to cut costs instead of for the benefit of patients or staff.)
“I suspect this is what is really behind the present complaint against her,” Burnham wrote.
The medical commission’s investigation is close to wrapping up, commission spokeswoman Stephanie McManus said. Once it does, the governor-appointed, 21-member commission will review the findings and decide whether to pursue disciplinary action against Barnett, or to close the case.
The commission can seek penalties including suspension of a medical license.