Big changes under way at Monroe prison
Changes are in place at the Monroe Correctional Complex in order to increase safety, following the January death of corrections officer Jayme Biendl.
Seattle Times staff reporter
At the Monroe Correctional Complex on Thursday, pairs of corrections officers stood by the metal gate leading into the recreation yard, singling out inmates for random pat-downs.
The inmates stripped off their jackets and stood in the chilly November sunshine answering questions about what was in their pockets and their plans for the day.
While some inmates appeared annoyed with the checks, others shrugged and said this was only one form of tightened security they've seen since Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl was killed at the Washington State Reformatory, a part of the Monroe prison complex, earlier this year.
In the weeks after Biendl's death, allegedly at the hands of an inmate, prison staff across the state talked about the changes necessary to help them feel safer. Panic call buttons, pepper spray and tracking devices were added to many officers' tool belts, all changes supported by Gov. Chris Gregoire and the National Institute of Corrections.
But the greatest change has been in officers' attitudes, several longtime staffers at the Monroe prison said.
"Staff were complacent," said Lt. Jack Warner, who supervises 70 officers on the day shift. "They had to look in the mirror."
Warner said he thinks about Biendl's death every day and wonders what could have been done differently to save her. He was off work the day she was killed.
"I hate to say that it took an event like this to make changes, but maybe it did," Warner said, adding that officers now regularly discuss security and are quicker to react to potential problems.
Biendl, 34, who was strangled with an amplifier cord on Jan. 29, was the first Department of Corrections (DOC) officer killed in a state prison in 32 years.
Byron Scherf, who was serving a life sentence for his third rape conviction, was found outside the prison chapel where Biendl was stationed and where he worked as a volunteer. Biendl's body was found on the stage of the chapel about two hours after she was last seen.
Scherf later confessed to the killing and is awaiting trial in Snohomish County on murder charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Three officers have been fired and four others, including two lieutenants, have been disciplined for mistakes made before and after Biendl's slaying.
At the prison Thursday, Scott Frakes, superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex, DOC Secretary Bernie Warner and other top corrections leaders walked reporters around to show some of the changes to the prison system since the killing.
The prison added staff who are responsible for monitoring the whereabouts of other prison employees, re-evaluated the process that determines where inmates are housed and where they can work while in prison, and barred inmates from sharing cells inside the Washington State Reformatory.
In addition, freedoms that inmates once had have been curtailed. They no longer can choose whether to go to the recreation yard or the gym; only one is open at a time. Inmates can't volunteer in the chapel or with any organization that provides programs in the prison.
And all inmate activities have been drastically reduced. Before Biendl's killing, nearly 1,000 volunteers brought programs to inmates inside the prison complex; the number of those programs has been slashed in half, Frakes said.
Prison officials said they have eliminated some religious programs and consolidated others, restricted yoga classes to include only minimum-security inmates, reduced prison gardening programs and cut a group dedicated to the culture of Asian Pacific Islanders.
Felix D'Allesandro, an inmate from Olympia, agrees that daily life is more restrictive now inside Monroe. "There's a definite desire by the staff to make this a safer institution," said D'Allesandro, 27.
But he's not sure whether the changes have helped.
"Byron Scherf, he was an anomaly. It was a safe institution before," said D'Allesandro, who is serving time for first-degree murder. "You can't predict the actions of another person."
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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