When Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair announced his retirement earlier this year, the decision was framed as a voluntary winding down of a distinguished career.
In his Jan. 26 email to DOC employees, saying he’d retire effective May 1, Sinclair called it “a difficult decision, but one that I believe is best for me and my family.”
But Sinclair didn’t really have a choice. He was asked to step down – fired, essentially – by his boss, Gov. Jay Inslee, public records show.
At the time, Inslee did not say he’d pushed Sinclair out. In a news release, the governor praised Sinclair for his three decades at the DOC, including as secretary since 2017. Asked at a news conference in April whether he’d asked Sinclair to resign, Inslee refused to answer, calling it “irrelevant at this point.”
As is usually the case with top state agency officials, news of Sinclair’s departure was carefully choreographed, with a schedule worked out in consultation with the governor’s office in late January.
Staff at the DOC and governor’s office – aware their emails are public records – were generally careful in the written communications to betray no explicit sign that Sinclair was being forced out.
But Sinclair himself blew up the charade in responding to a draft of a “Tick Tock” schedule detailing precisely how his retirement would be revealed to agency employees, legislators and the public.
The Jan. 22 list, sent to Sinclair by Kelly Wicker, Inslee’s deputy chief of staff, included a seemingly performative task: “Steve notifies Governor.”
Sinclair appeared puzzled by that, based on his response, given the governor’s office involvement. He commented on the draft: “Why do I need to notify the Gov he is the one who asked me to leave?”
The notation was revealed in thousands of pages of emails and other documents released by the DOC after a Public Records Act request.
There was no explanation in those records as to why Inslee decided to make a change, and the governor’s office declined to shed any light.
But Sinclair’s ouster took place amid continuing publicity over health care lapses and negligence at state prisons, some leading to deaths and expensive lawsuits. A critical report by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, which detailed deadly failures in cancer diagnosis and treatment, was delivered to Inslee shortly before Sinclair’s retirement announcement.
Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee, said in an email the governor’s office generally does not comment on personnel issues “out of respect for all parties,” but that “the documents you have speak for themselves.”
“There were a number of reasons for this decision, but most importantly, the state needed to move in a different direction at the Department of Corrections. The governor has full confidence in Cheryl Strange as the new DOC secretary,” Lee said, referring to the state government veteran named to succeed Sinclair in late April.
Lee added: “The governor’s office won’t have more to say on this.”
All Cabinet-level state-agency leaders are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the state Senate. The governor can remove them at will.
As governor since 2013, Inslee has not been known for publicly firing his appointees. He has staunchly defended some agency heads, even when they have faced blowback and calls for their firing, such as Suzi LeVine, the embattled former head of the state Employment Security Department, who left in January for a job in the Biden administration.
In an interview this week, Sinclair, 55, confirmed Inslee asked him to move on, but called the decision “mutually agreeable,” noting that he was eligible to receive retirement benefits after more than 30 years at the DOC.
“I don’t know how much of this I want to get into, because for me, it’s kind of like water under the bridge,” he said. “I think it worked out pretty well that I was in a position to retire. To me, the why doesn’t matter that much.”
Sinclair said he did not know why he was let go. Asked whether Inslee spoke with him directly about his decision, he said “not initially, no.” But he emphasized he didn’t want to clash with the governor, noting he still wants to seek work in the corrections field, possibly as a consultant or expert witness.
Despite his written questioning of having to “notify” Inslee of his retirement that the governor was well aware of, Sinclair played along, records show. He formally submitted a notice of his retirement to Wicker on Jan. 22, writing that he “appreciated the Governor’s faith in me and the opportunity to lead the agency.”
Sinclair got his start as a correctional officer at Walla Walla State Penitentiary in 1988. He worked his way up, becoming an investigator, sergeant, and eventually a prison superintendent and assistant DOC secretary. Inslee named him secretary in April 2017.
As secretary, Sinclair managed a penal system with nearly 15,000 incarcerated people at the state’s dozen prisons, and another 20,000 under community supervision. His annual salary was $186,888.
Over the past year, he had to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, which spread through DOC facilities, causing 14 deaths of incarcerated people and two DOC staff. The prison system took steps to sanitize rooms and sped up some early releases, but it faced criticism and lawsuits seeking more decisive steps.
Sinclair defended his agency’s COVID-19 record, pointing out that the DOC saw fewer deaths compared with many other prison systems. “Contrary to what the naysayers might be saying, look at the data – we kept people alive at a greater rate,” he said.
Data tracked by the COVID Prison Project shows many states did have more coronavirus deaths in their prisons, including 260 in Texas and 224 in California. In Oregon, 42 incarcerated people died.
Sinclair said he also was proud to start the DOC’s transformation toward a focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Such reforms have accelerated as the public and politicians have noted the deep racial inequities who gets sent to prison and for how long.
Sinclair and other top DOC leaders have supported efforts to shorten prison sentences by minimizing prison time for some nonviolent offenders and boosting time off for good behavior.
“There are so many things we do to oppress,” Sinclair said of the prison system. “Eventually, you get to the point of ‘we really need to help these people if we want them to not come back and be successful.’”
While he won’t be able to lead those efforts at DOC any more, Sinclair said he has enjoyed his semiretirement so far after years in a high-pressure role.
“It’s been wonderful. The amount of stress you carry around with those jobs is horrendous,” he said. “I knew going into it, it was a time-limited position. Something gets you at some point.”
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