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Are the inmates in control at Washington State prisons?
by Robert Randle
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Dear Dana:

I enjoyed watching your KCPQ-13 FOX NEWS interview with the Correctional Officers and Nurse who worked with the now slain Jayme Biendl at the Monroe, WA facility. I am a former CO trainee at the McNeil Island prison nearly 15 years ago, but I decided that it was not for me after only a month; but you can observe and learn a lot even in that short time period especially when prison veterans tell you what’s really going on. I think the real issue is the philosophy of the Secretary of the DOC when it pertains to how inmates are treated during their period of incarceration. When I was in training, the Superintendent of the DOC was a graduate of St. Martin's College in Olympia and his objective was not to punish criminal offenders but to take a different approach, such as leaning on the disciplines of the Social Sciences toward rehabilitation and treating them like human beings with civil rights dignity, respect, and all that.

In fact, the inmates could file grievances against their custodians [the guards] and each complaint would be investigated as far as I know. When a prison guard is sued by an inmate the DOC does not provide legal representation for the employee and the person has to find and pay for their own legal expenses and counsel. Not only that, but any CO who is involved in litigation is not thought of so well by the prison hierarchy (warden, DOC Secretary) because they would rather avoid such attention because it indicates there is a breakdown in communication and it has the potential to upset the fragile balance between inmates and staff which could lead to even greater problems down the road and the operational objective is to run a prison system where there aren’t any confrontations or fighting; and in the long history of McNeil Island at least, there has probably only been a handful of attempted escapes and no rioting.

Of course, for the inmates it was "THREE HOTS AND A COT" or rather three meals a day and a warm bed. McNeil Island did have the "Hole" (solitary confinement) which is essentially what one would expect; although not quite as dire as depicted in the movies. There is this old saying that if you get incarcerated let it be in a prison instead of in the overcrowded County jail where you might not get fed on a regular basis and possibly end up sleeping on the floor of a cold concrete cell [pillow and mattress not necessarily included]. In the prison, the inmates had a nice gymnasium to play basketball, a handball court, a weight room besides the one outside in the Yard, and at one time the inmates could have steroids dispensed to them to bulk up during weight training. Although most of these perks [cable TV, steroids, etc.] were discontinued right before I arrived, still they had a prison library of books which they probably used to work on their legal appeals, and of course as it pertains to Officer Jamye Biendl, just about anyone could make an appointment to meet with the prison Chaplain who was probably alone with the inmate.

An inmate could make an appointment with a social worker such as a case manager or the prison psychiatrist and even the meals served in the cafeteria were prepared or monitored by a dietician. I don't know about Monroe, Walla Walla, and a few other prisons but McNeil Island was a medium security prison where the CO's carried no weapons of any sort but keys and had a proximity alarm on their person but I think they had to be the one to activate the signal if in trouble.

I suppose the concern among prison officials that if the inmates were treated harsher and if some of their privileges were taken away they might become more violent towards one another and their caretakers [the guards], and perhaps treating them with kid gloves is the better approach. Maybe the thinking is that they are not bad people but they just do bad things, however, I don't know if the family, colleagues and loved ones of Officer Biendl can find any consolation in that. I wish I had an answer for this dilemma because the statistics are overwhelmingly clear that prison DOES NOT rehabilitate with a recidivism rate of at least 90% and yet, reverting back to the old school of inmates busting rocks on a chain gang like something out of an old 1960's movies like "The Defiant Ones" with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier or Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” but that may not work either.

The inmates at the Monroe Correctional Facility are allowed to enjoy certain freedoms that the taxpayers and victims of their criminality would find objectionable such as enjoying barbecues, watching their favorite sporting events on flat screen TV’s, holiday celebrations and other events which seems inconsistent with the magnitude of suffering that these individuals inflicted upon those whom they harmed. At the McNeil prison the inmates were allowed to watch cable TV previously, and not wanting to disrespect the cultural traditions of the diverse population behind bars, Native Americans could use “peyote” [marijuana] in their religious celebrations until the prison administrators came to the realization that it just might not be such a good idea to allow this practice after-all. So, when the inmates at Monroe refer to their environment as “PrisoneyLand” that is not all that surprising because it would seem like a fantasy, a dream come true and sweet reward to them for perpetrating some of the most heinous crimes committed against Washington citizens.

Although Washington is not like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and a few other states, mostly in the southern United States whose reputation regarding Capital punishment and penology is much deserved, something needs to be done to keep the prison staff safe as well as inmates and the Legislature, Governor, Secretary of Prisons and the CO's have to come together and solve this problem before someone else is killed, raped, or whatever.

Robert Randle
776 Commerce St. #B-11
Tacoma, WA 98402
March 18, 2011

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