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Arbitrator: Department of Corrections wrong to fire guards for prison murder

Jayme Biendl was strangled with an amplifier cord in January 2011 in the Monroe state prison chapel. (Photo: Washington Department of Corrections)

An arbitrator has ruled the Washington Department of Corrections was wrong to fire three corrections officers and demote a sergeant for their actions around the time a guard was killed two years ago.

Prison officials had accused the guards of misconduct, dereliction of duty and of purposely misleading investigators in the death of officer Jayme Biendl, who was strangled by a prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

“The department did not have clear policies and they did not actually enforce policies that they did have and so really it was about the department failing here, not these workers,” Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, explained to KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show.

In an award signed Sunday, arbitrator Michael Cavanaugh ruled in favor of an appeal from the Teamsters union. He ordered the reinstatement of the three officers and the sergeant with back pay and benefits. Three of the four should have been reprimanded, not fired or demoted, and the fourth should not have been disciplined at all, he said.

Cavanaugh noted that investigations by the state Department of Labor and Industries and the National Institute of Corrections found systemic problems in the prison’s procedures and equipment, as well as a widespread culture of complacency among supervisors and managers.

“What happened here is these workers were scapegoated by the Department of Corrections,” said Thompson. “That’s what this arbitrator, after seven days of hearing, 26 witnesses, and thousands of pages of documentation, determined that these folks should not have been fired, that the department didn’t do its part in terms of making sure that the working conditions at the reformatory were safe for everybody.”

In a news release, the department said it was reviewing the arbitrator’s decision and considering its options.

“We took disciplinary action because of the serious nature of the staff members’ actions – including falsifying documents and lying to police investigators – which does not accurately represent the professionalism of our staff,” the department said. “We can only be an effective agency if we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, which we did in this case.”

Biendl was strangled with an amplifier cord in January 2011 in the prison chapel. Inmate Byron Scherf, a convicted rapist who was already serving a life sentence, was convicted of aggravated murder in May and sentenced to death.

Scherf told investigators he had been in the chapel and started to leave when the prisoners were ordered back to their cells. But then he stopped, told another inmate he had forgotten his hat, and went back inside, where Biendl was alone.

One officer, David Young, was fired for being outside his assigned zone, where he might have seen an inmate return to the chapel. But the arbitrator found it was common for Young and other guards to be outside their assigned zones, and he had never been officially reprimanded about it before. No discipline should have been taken against him, Cavanaugh said.

“You can’t fire the guy for not being on the post when lots of other people in that same position aren’t on these posts at these times and you don’t take any action against them,” explained Thompson.

Officer George Lyons was fired for making a logbook entry indicating the chapel had been cleared of prisoners even though Biendl never gave an all-clear. The third, Charles Maynard, was fired for failing to properly inspect and secure the chapel when the prisoner accused in the killing was located. All three also were accused of giving inconsistent statements or lying to investigators, though Cavanaugh said there was no evidence of intentional dishonesty.

Sgt. Christopher Johnson was demoted for failing to take action after he became aware that Young was regularly outside his assigned zone.

Dori wondered how much personal responsibility an employee should have at the workplace, especially when protected in a union.

Thompson explained that if there is no leadership, employees cannot be solely blamed for mistakes.

“Sure, there’s some responsibility on the part of the people who work for me to step up, to try to figure out their path and do things right, but if I’m not leading them in the right direction, how can I blame them?” said Thompson. “And that’s what the Department of Corrections did. They blamed these workers and took no responsibility.”

Officers didn’t find Biendl’s body until about two hours after the attack. Biendl’s radio sent out two brief signals about 15 seconds apart, including one that sounded like a screech and was unusual enough to catch the attention of several staff members, but officers didn’t investigate.

Monroe Correctional Complex is the state’s second largest prison. It houses more than 2,500 offenders.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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