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Despite Improvements, Audit Finds Safety Gaps In Washington Prisons

Washington Department of Corrections
Officer Jayme Biendl was murdered by an inmate in the chapel at the Monroe Correctional Complex in 2011.

Officer Jayme Biendl was murdered by an inmate in the chapel at the Monroe Correctional Complex in 2011. Her death spawned a major prison safety initiative in Washington.

A state performance audit released Tuesday concluded that Washington prisons are safer five years after Biendl's murder, but safety gaps still persist that put staff at risk.

Chuck Pfeil, a director at the Washington State Auditor’s Office, said the implementation of safety improvements has been inconsistent across Washington’s 12 prisons.

“If you have staff that cannot be located for a period of time, if you have staff that don’t have proper equipment, that can put them at additional risk,” Pfeil said. “So we feel like there are things that need to be addressed.”

A lack of cameras and an out-of-date prison staffing model are among the chief concerns cited in the performance audit. But the auditors’ top concern was something else: the fact that prison staff are not routinely searched before they begin their shifts. That raises the risk of contraband being smuggled into the facilities.

In a statement, Washington Department of Corrections Assistant Secretary of Prisons Steve Sinclair said, “Security cameras have been added and will continue to be added as funding becomes available. As noted by the auditors, the department was budgeted $33 million in the 2013-15 and 2015-17 biennia to continue its camera installation and other safety initiatives. Corrections reviews its policies on a regular basis to determine where updates are needed and has a process for initiating urgent policy reviews when emergent issues arise.”

Sinclair also said that the Department of Corrections will examine expanding staff searches as part of “an analysis to determine the feasibility of changes to the staffing model."

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."