By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Olympian
November 11, 2010

The State’s plan to eliminate critical jobs and programs at the Department of Corrections (DOC) will not only endanger the lives of the brave men and women who staff the adult prison system in the State of Washington, but will impede economic recovery and threaten the safety our communities.

Over the past three years, the State has eliminated more than 1,200 positions and slashed more than $220 million from DOC's annual budget. The State shut down two prisons entirely and closed units at two other DOC facilities, despite the fact that inmate populations are higher than forecasted. Furthermore, the State has raised health care costs for correctional employees, cut community corrections programs, and imposed temporary layoffs.

Now the State wants to make more cuts to the tune of $53 million. The problem is that there’s no place left to cut without severely compromising safety.

In the latest round of cuts, the State has ordered monthly lockdowns for inmates, the elimination of recreational and educational programming, cuts to chemical dependency counseling and the elimination of custody staffing in key parts of the prison.

The announcement of these reductions has justifiably caused an uproar among correctional employees. Ask anyone who works inside a prison and they will tell you that the State’s plan, if implemented, will lead to more violence in prisons and more assaults on prison staff in an environment where assaults are already commonplace.

Correctional employees already have one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs imaginable. Officers are routinely required to break up fights between inmates, and they often sustain debilitating injuries. Correctional employees, both custody and non-custody alike, are frequently the targets of assault by convicted felons.

Prison workers in our State have reported being subjected to physical violence, being spit on and having toxic cocktails of feces, urine and other bodily fluids thrown at them. Outside of the workplace, they face intimidation and harassment when offenders attempt to access their personal information through public records requests or when inmates with a score to settle are released into their communities.

Under State law, the State of Washington has an obligation to ensure a safe working environment for its employees. Indeed, the State’s responsibility to provide reasonably safe working conditions for our public servants whether they be nurses, law enforcement officers, counselors, or cooks, is, not just a legal or contractual, but a moral imperative.

Instead of implementing measures to improve safety conditions for correctional employees as is desperately needed, the State is dismantling programs that provide the most basic protections that help to keep its employees safe.

Further reductions to staffing and programming in our State’s prison system along with more facility closures will also lead to greater violence in our communities. Studies have shown that proper staffing, counseling, and educational and recreational programming in our prisons help lower recidivism rates. Maintaining sufficient bed capacity prevents dangerous overcrowding, which also affects recidivism. The last thing we need is to have more offenders return to our communities to commit violent crimes.

Correctional employees protect us from society's criminals, while at the same time help to educate and rehabilitate those offenders intent on returning to our communities to resume healthy and productive lives. By undermining the ability of correctional workers to do their jobs and thereby making the prisons unsafe, the State is creating an explosive environment that puts both our public servants and our communities at risk.