The woman serving as superintendent of McNeil Island Corrections Center - the first black to run a state prison in Washington - blames racism and sexism for more than $13,000 in fines levied against its infirmary.
The state Department of Labor and Industries imposed the fines for “serious” violations - some of which endangered inmates’ health at the medium-security prison.
At issue were inadequate nurse training, faulty medical equipment and alleged retaliation against workers who complained.
The alleged problems also have led to an unfair labor practice complaint filed by the prison employees’ union, the resignations of several infirmary employees and a call for legislative hearings.
Superintendent Belinda Stewart declined to respond to specific allegations since the Labor and Industries actions are under appeal. She noted some of the problems began before she took over 2-1/2 years ago.
But she attributed part of the problem to unease about her race and gender, saying a few hostile workers are trying to undermine her authority.
“There are some issues related to race and gender here,” said Stewart, 40. “There are people who don’t want to work for me for that reason.”
“This group is going out of their way to paint me as a poor administrator,” she said.
Her boss - Eldon Vail, assistant director of the state Division of Prisons - agrees.
“There has been a need for cultural changes in that institution for a long time,” Vail said. “They are definitely behind the curve in racial and gender issues.”
McNeil has just over 1,500 inmates and a staff of 700, about 17 percent of whom are black.
Workers of both races told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Stewart’s management style is behind nurses’ complaints.
“I wouldn’t care if she was purple,” said one McNeil worker who requested anonymity. “I just want someone who is going to take control and deal with the problems that remain unresolved.”
Workers said an incident last Sept. 11 sparked much of the current turmoil.
Inmate Joseph Daniels, being treated for an infection, went to bed in the infirmary that night with an intravenous tube in his arm. But the rubber stopper, called a heparin lock, that was supposed to protect his vein was three years past its expiration date and had begun to crumble, according to state investigators.
During the night, a custody officer discovered Daniels’ IV leaking. His blood was saturating the blankets and pooling on the floor.
“The supply of faulty heparin locks was not replaced after staff had warned supervisors about the problem for six weeks,” investigators said.
Five days after the incident, they said, infirmary supervisors had still made no effort to replace the damaged devices.
“When the inspector asked to see a heparin lock in good condition, management attempted to hide five seriously deteriorated heparin locks still in packages,” the investigators’ report said.
The medical clinic was also cited by Labor and Industries for not following basic health and safety procedures.
Department investigators cited a “continuing pattern for at least six years” in which workers who voiced safety concerns “are met with inaction and/or harassment.”
And problems have persisted since Stewart arrived, said infirmary workers interviewed in the state investigations.
Stewart concedes that at times “there were breakdowns in communications that shouldn’t have happened.”
But if there were violations at the infirmary, she said, she didn’t know about them.
“It is the responsibility of the (hospital) managers to report problems,” Stewart said. “I can’t possibly know everything that’s going on in here.”
She said she’s hired a new manager to run the infirmary, and a private consultant who organized the staff into problem-solving teams.
But some health care workers said that if Stewart and infirmary supervisors would listen to the nursing staff, the new personnel would be unnecessary.
“They can hire all the consultants they want. Unless they change some of the medical practices the care will remain substandard,” said Ed Geiger, a nurse who quit his prison job last week.
“If only half the stuff I’ve heard is true, there’s enough for 10 new pieces of legislation,” said state Sen. Shirley Winsley, R-Fircrest, who met last week with prison workers and union leaders and plans to request Senate hearings this fall.
“Even the inmates know employee morale is bad; it’s just lucky they haven’t taken advantage.”