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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Prison safety improved after guard murder, but some gaps persist, auditors say

In this photo taken Aug. 29, 2013, an exterior fence outlines the Airway Heights Corrections Center in Airway Heights, Wash. An inmate is suing the Washington State Department of Corrections, alleging that he was denied medical care while incarcerated at the center. (Nicholas K. Geranios / AP)
In this photo taken Aug. 29, 2013, an exterior fence outlines the Airway Heights Corrections Center in Airway Heights, Wash. An inmate is suing the Washington State Department of Corrections, alleging that he was denied medical care while incarcerated at the center. (Nicholas K. Geranios / AP)

Washington’s prisons made innovative safety improvements after the strangling of a corrections officer in 2011, but individual facilities still lack vital equipment, a new state audit revealed Tuesday.

Prisons also fail to conduct routine staff searches to ensure contraband isn’t smuggled inside, a practice common in most states, auditors said.

The state Auditor’s Office released the results of a detailed study of safety improvements the Corrections Department made after Officer Jayme Biendl was murdered by an inmate in the chapel of the Monroe prison. Those changes include better training, more safety equipment for guards and more cameras to monitor inmate areas at the state’s 12 prisons.

The department issues pepper spray to guards, more radios and body alarms for staff, and requires more checks of posts in isolated areas.

Overall, the department “should be commended for the actions they’ve taken to improve staff safety,” Susan Hoffman, a principal on the performance audit team, said Tuesday.

Even with added safety measures, the department can’t completely eliminate the prospect of a situation like the murder of Biendl, said Chuck Pfeil, the director of state and performance audits.

But individual prisons still have gaps in between what they’ve done and leading practices around the country, Hoffman and Pfeil said. And all prisons should start a policy of searching staff members as they report for work, to keep contraband from being brought into the prisons.

Of the 40 state prison systems studied by experts for the audit, Washington was one of only seven that did not have a policy for screening all staff, Pfeil said. “They did not feel it was needed; they trust their staff.”

In response to the audit, corrections administrators said their review of national practices showed that less than half the states require staff searches. Washington has random searches at higher custody prisons, they added.

Auditors visited each of the state’s 12 prisons and found different gaps in safety improvements.

At the Airway Heights Correctional Center, which is a medium- and minimum-security facility, auditors and the outside experts they hired said there weren’t enough radios for staff not directly involved in the custody of inmates. The facilities security specialists have additional duties and weren’t able to produce information on safety initiatives.

Auditors also surveyed staff on what they thought would improve safety. One of the most common answers at Airway Heights and other facilities was “hire more staff.”

Auditors are recommending the department analyze and possibly update its staffing levels.

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