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Washington Corrections Officer's Death Spurs Changes
Updated On: Mar 28, 2011
Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. --

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined a series of reforms Monday aimed at protecting the safety of prison guards after a female corrections worker was strangled in a chapel with a microphone cord.

Corrections officers in the state should wear personal body alarms, carry pepper spray and make other safety improvements to avoid future attacks like the one that killed a guard at the Monroe prison in January, Gregoire said in a speech at the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, where she announcing the findings of an investigation by the National Institute of Corrections.

Guard Jayme Biendl was working alone Jan. 29 when she was strangled to death during a struggle in the prison chapel.

The report said the lack of personal body alarms meant staff must rely on radio, telephone or shouting if they need assistance. Biendl had a radio, which was destroyed in the struggle. Also, the report said staff should be issued pepper spray to help deal with violent confrontations with inmates. They are currently unarmed.

"In the face of that loss, we resolved to find out what happened and to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent another such attack on our corrections officers," Gregoire said. "Jayme's legacy will be enhanced protection of her co-workers, who face inherent dangers while on the job."

Proposed safety improvements include: adding staff who are responsible for the whereabouts of all employees; improving the radio system; testing a proximity card system to track staff locations; training supervisors on enhanced security awareness to combat complacency; and temporarily reducing overcrowding in prisons, including an end to double-bunking at the Washington State Reformatory.

The state faces big budget deficits, but the Department of Corrections will work with legislators to implement the recommendations, said Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail, who joined Gregoire for the announcement.

Corrections officials took immediate actions after Biendl's death to improve safety, he said.

Tracey Thompson, secretary of Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers, said the report recommendations are a good start.

"But there is no mechanism that they will be implemented," she said.

Thompson also worried the state's $5 billion budget deficit will delay safety improvements that cost money.

In Biendl's death, the first indication something was wrong came around 9:15 p.m., during a prisoner head count. The count found one prisoner missing, and Scherf was located minutes later in the chapel lobby. He told officers he had planned to escape but changed his mind.

It wasn't until 10:18 p.m. that Biendl's body was found on a stage in the chapel, after officers realized she hadn't turned in her radio and handcuffs at the end of her shift.

The report said there were 215 corrections officers for 780 inmates at the reformatory, which is considered adequate staff.

Biendl had previously complained about being alone, but the report concluded that single officer posts like the one Biendl was assigned are common in prison systems. The inherent risks can be significantly reduced by use of controlled group movements of inmates, the report said.

Court documents quoted Scherf saying he waited for everyone to leave the prison chapel and then strangled her. The report also noted that Scherf was a volunteer clerk in the chapel, but no one knew how he got the job.

"The predatory inmate plans for opportunities to get a staff member alone in an isolated area," the report said.

The institute said the corrections department should review whether violent inmates and those serving life without parole should have access to certain areas in the prison.

Vail said some recommendations can be put in place now, while others need further research and legislative funding. The agency will arm some corrections officers with pepper spray, he said.

The institute is part of the U.S. Department of Justice and provides training and technical assistance to federal, state and local corrections agencies. 

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