By Tracey A. Thompson
Published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin
February 29, 2012

On the night of Feb. 4, four inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla turned on officers who were trying to break up the fight.

One of the inmates stabbed the shift sergeant with a state-issued toothbrush that had been sharpened into a shank. Four officers, including the sergeant, were injured in the incident and transported to the hospital for treatment. If not for a notebook in his pocket, the sergeant likely would have been seriously wounded or killed.

This brutal attack on correctional staff who work in our adult prisons is just one of many in the last year. Last summer, two correctional staff members were assaulted and taken hostage in the textile factory at Clallam Bay Corrections Center by inmates armed with scissors. One inmate was shot and killed as he attempted to escape. Last March, an officer at the Washington State Penitentiary was stabbed in the face with a ball-point pen. Last January, Officer Jayme Biendl was savagely murdered in the prison chapel of the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Correctional officers are exposed to other forms of assault by inmates on a routine basis. In the past seven months, one correctional officer at Monroe has had bodily fluids thrown on him five different times. In January, an inmate threw a cup of blood into the officer’s face and eyes, requiring a hospital visit and testing for hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

Last year, the state took a small step toward prioritizing staff safety by implementing SB 5907. Correctional staff was hopeful that meaningful change would occur. While there have been some minor improvements, it is not nearly enough. Officers still regularly work single-person posts. OC gas (pepper spray) has not been made available to all correctional officers. Violent offenders’ custody levels are still overridden to justify a reduction in staffing levels.

Line staff positions are being cut, yet the Department of Correction is poised to spend $4 million on a pilot program for inmates at two prisons in Eastern Washington. Correctional officers are fighting to get legislation passed so they do not have to wear uniforms made by the inmates they oversee (HB 2346), yet the Department opposes that legislation because it will take away sewing jobs from inmates.

Correctional staff understands the value in keeping inmates busy and that there is a need to reduce recidivism rates.  The problem is one of balance. Staff safety should not take a back seat to budget considerations. Yet it does.  Staff safety should not be less of a priority than the interests of inmates. Yet it is.

It is long past time for balance to be restored. The safety of brave men and women who work inside our adult prisons should be a high priority for our elected officials and for the general public.