SPOKANE — An inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex was preparing music for a Christian service in the prison chapel. Problem was, a small cabinet there was marked “Wicca” and displayed a pentagram — a symbol of that pagan religion — on its door.
Corrections officer Jayme Biendl agreed to cover the cabinet with a blanket and turn it toward a wall, but the 2008 incident nevertheless earned her a grievance from the prisoner, Anthony Snow, who said she should be “re-educated in the sensitivity of the area she oversees.” The presence of a Wiccan symbol, even one covered by a blanket, could offend both Christians and Wiccans, he said.
The grievance was one of about 15 filed against Biendl in the years before she was strangled to death in January at the chapel of the state reformatory in Monroe, according to documents released to the Associated Press under a public disclosure request. The grievances were universally determined to be unfounded, but they help shed light on the pressures of working inside the walls of the state’s prisons, even in a place as relatively serene as the chapel.
“Any place you work in a prison is an incredibly stressful, dangerous work environment, whether you work in the chapel or the kitchen or walking the tiers,” said Paul Zilly, spokesman for Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers.
Biendl, 34, had been a corrections officer since 2002, and she was widely considered to be good at her job — she had even been named the prison’s officer of the year in 2008. She was working alone the evening of Jan. 29, when she was strangled during a struggle in the chapel. Inmate Byron Scherf, 52, who had never filed a grievance against her, has been charged with aggravated murder in the case.
Scherf, serving a life sentence for rape, has pleaded not guilty in Snohomish County Superior Court and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Biendl had complained to superiors about the practice of working shifts alone, but single-officer posts are common in prison systems. Prison officials said just one guard had worked in the chapel for the past 15 years, with few problems.
In court papers, detectives say Scherf has confessed to killing Biendl because he was angry at how she had spoken with him. The grievances obtained by the AP show that several inmates had been angry with her as well, with some claiming she was rude in dealing with prisoners’ concerns.
Among them were inmate Clarence Johnson, who claimed in July 2005 that he and Biendl argued over his desire to attend a Muslim prayer service, and then remain in the chapel for another hour for religious instruction. Biendl said he couldn’t do both.
“Biendl then snapped, approached me in a hostile manner and began yelling at me to not argue with her,” Johnson wrote. “I would like for C/O Biendl to be removed from the chapel to prevent her from further harassing me and threatening me!”
He later withdrew the grievance.
Snow also filed a grievance against Biendl in August 2005 over a dispute involving a rule that inmates confined to their cells for infractions were allowed only one religious service per week in the chapel. The dispute involved how to measure the week.
In 2007, grievances against Biendl were filed by several inmates over a practice of limiting Muslim prayer services to one hour unless there was a Muslim sponsor to provide an additional hour of instruction.
Inmate Calvin Washington said he believed Biendl was prejudiced against Muslim services. Another demanded she lose two weeks of pay. Investigators found that Biendl was following the rules and that she should be commended for being fair and consistent.
On Dec. 31, 2010, inmate Joseph McDaniels contended that Biendl turned him away from a prayer service because he was not on the attendance roster.
“I would like to further note in this grievance that this is the second time within the last 6 months that C/O Biendl has denied my religious service,” McDaniels wrote. The department investigated and found that McDaniels’ name was not on the roster because of a lack of recent attendance.
After Snow’s complaint about the cabinet marked “Wicca,” the Corrections Department found that Biendl properly handled the situation. The agency crafted new procedures on dealing with religious symbols in the chapel.