March 2, 2011 in City, News

Prison guards say budget cuts a safety issue

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A cold, damp picket line of state prison guards asked for safety and respect Wednesday in Airway Heights.

The picketers got an occasional car-honk salute as they called attention to staffing cuts at the Airway Heights Corrections Center.

“They’re putting us at risk,” corrections officer Jeff Rude said.

State Prisons Director Bernie Warner acknowledged that a 6.3 percent budget cut caused “some difficult reductions” in support programs that may affect safety.

However, Warner said cuts in the corrections staff were “very, very small.”

With each corrections officer overseeing 126 inmates, there was little room for cuts except in programs aimed at reforming inmates and keeping them occupied, Warner said.

He said the Legislature recently passed a supplemental budget that will soften some of the cuts, and more relief is expected in the biennium that starts July 1.

Rude was among eight Teamsters Union informational picketers at the corner of U.S. Highway 2 and Lawson Street, about three miles from the corrections center.

They and other Teamsters Union members at prisons around the state waved signs calling for “Safety, Dignity and Respect” and pointing out that corrections officers do dangerous work for the public good.

“We’re no different from law enforcement on the street except we don’t carry weapons,” Rude said. “Our only defense is our professionalism – the way we work with inmates.”

He has been a corrections officer nearly 12 years, including eight at Airway Heights.

According to a Teamsters press release, union concerns include inadequate video surveillance, large numbers of officers working alone, a flawed offender classification system and management failure to take safety complaints seriously.

State Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said in a press release that state prison officials are “working closely with the National Institute of Corrections to find additional steps we can take to ensure the safety of our staff members.”

“We get our best ideas from staff,” Warner said in an interview.

He said there has been “a significant effort to communicate with staff,” but there are about 6,000 employees in 13 prisons. Managers don’t want to delay “quick-fix” safety improvements with too much conversation, Warner said.

Wednesday’s daylong picketing was planned before a guard was stabbed in the head with a pen Tuesday evening at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The unnamed officer suffered puncture wounds to the face and a dislocated shoulder, and two others who came to his aid suffered minor injuries.

In addition to staff cuts, the picketing was in response to the Jan. 29 strangulation death of corrections officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Rude said Airway Heights officers frequently face dangerous situations if not assaults. Just last Friday, he suffered a puncture wound from a homemade needle hidden in a sock in a locker he was searching.

The needle’s owner probably had used it for tattooing, but it also could have been used as a weapon, Rude said.

“It’s a hazard we deal with on a daily basis,” he said.

Rude said he has “a little bit of anxiety” as he waits for tests to determine whether he was exposed to any contagion.

Rude believes violence is on the rise among Airway Heights inmates.

“Whenever inmates fight each other, it’s inevitable that some staff member is going to get in the middle,” he said.

Actually, Warner said, there was a 30 percent reduction in serious assaults in state prisons in the past three years, to 43. “But the number should be zero.”

He and Rude agreed that elimination of recreation and education staff positions is a step in the wrong direction. However, Warner said superintendents have been directed to “think a little bit differently” and save as many programs as possible.

Rude said many recreation staff members were laid off Tuesday and several programs, such as music and the hobby shop were cut.

“They give the inmates something to do,” he said. “When the inmates get bored, violence ensues.”

Warner agreed: “Idleness is our enemy.”

Vail praised the picketers for “their willingness to bring this important issue to the public’s attention.”

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