GOP lawmakers continue to slam Gov. Inslee over scandals at DOC
From a computer system glitch blamed for the early release of thousands of prisoners, to investigations over inmate deaths under a now-fired medical director at the Monroe prison, the Washington State Corrections Department has had its share of scandals.
Some state Republicans say enough is enough, and are specifically calling out Governor Jay Inlsee over the problems.
“How many scandals will it take before Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration finally acknowledges the need for reform at the state Department of Corrections?”
Those words led an op-ed in the Everett Herald earlier this month from Republican state Senator Mike Padden.
The former judge and long-time state lawmaker from Spokane Valley was referring to the latest scandal at the DOC, surrounding multiple deaths at the Monroe prison under then Medical Director, Dr. Julia Barnett.
“There have at least been allegations that three inmates have died as a result of faulty medical care and there are investigations into others,” Padden told KIRO Radio, pointing to investigations at the Washington Medical Commission and DOC.
The Seattle Times first reported that Dr. Julia Barnett had been fired from the DOC for misconduct after the agency’s own investigation sharply faulted medical care she provided and supervised as Medical Director of the Monroe Correctional Complex.
DOC investigators pointed to issues with the care of six inmates, including three who died. Investigators noted top DOC medical officials said the care some inmates got was “shocking” and described “negligence” leading to increased suffering and possibly contributing to deaths.
Barnett is appealing her firing and denies the allegations.
The Washington Medical Commission is investigating those six cases and four other inmate deaths in 2017 and 2018.
Meantime, DOC officials admit the agency hired Barnett as the chief doctor at the Monroe prison, even though she did not meet their own qualification requirements, such as not completing an approved residency. DOC said she was hired because her overall experience was deemed “adequate” due to her prior prison work.
3,000 inmates released
Padden says this latest scandal comes just a few years after a computer glitch led to calculation errors, and the early release of more than 3,000 inmates, some that led to tragic consequences.
“The families of Cesar Modina and Lindsey Hill ended up with having their loved ones killed by prisoners that should have been in prison and instead were released early,” Padden said, noting the problem went on for years even after the issue was identified.
Padden also pointed to continued issues with release calculations at DOC.
“The department, again during the last session, indicated they were still having a problem with the release, and they were doing most of the [calculation] work manually — which they need to do — but there still were mistakes,” Padden said.
The early release scandal led to lawsuits that cost the state millions, and Padden says the latest scandal in Monroe will likely have similar consequences.
Enough, say Padden and other Senate Republicans.
“Incompetent leadership, high-profile blunders, costly lawsuits, inmates being released early and even deaths – that’s the record and legacy of Washington’s state prisons under Governor Inslee’s watch,” said Padden, the Republican leader on the Senate Law and Justice Committee, in a statement earlier this summer.
“Instead of working to correct these issues, Governor Inslee has been putting up roadblocks and actively halting the progress of those of us who are offering solutions,” he continued.
Padden says the governor’s appointees to head DOC over the past several years have been part of the problem, and criticizes Inlsee for not fully supporting a bi-partisan bill in the 2017 session that would have reformed the system.
“So there are real problems there, and I think the governor is right to be embarrassed by some of these problems,” Padden said.
“It’s wrong for him to stand in the way of bi-partisan reform like he did in 2017,” Padden added. “The problems do not seem to be solved, and I think he ought to be realistic and recognize the problems if we’re going to solve them.”
Governor Inslee’s response
The governor’s office says reforms are an ongoing effort.
“When the governor appointed Secretary Sinclair two years ago, he charged Sinclair with finding problems and fixing them — and that’s what DOC has been doing. For example, the agency identified the most recent issues with sentencing and took immediate action to fix the problem. This is a stark contrast to the department’s response to sentencing challenges in 2015, (that were addressed by the governor as soon as they were brought to our attention),” said Tara Lee, a spokesperson from the governor’s office.
“DOC is prioritizing resources to address critical needs like correctional records and health services,” Lee added. “The problems at the agency have been, and continue to be, taken very seriously by the governor, his administration and DOC leadership.”
“Unfortunately, it seems as if Sen. Padden is conflating issues for political gain rather than constructive solutions. Notably, many of the solutions proposed Sen. Padden’s 2017 bill have already been implemented. For example, we’ve already created an Office of the Corrections Ombuds,” Lee continued, also pointing out the DOC is an active member of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission and helped create recommendations to the Washington State Criminal Sentencing Task Force to improve community supervision and simplify sentencing.
“Reforms are happening, but it will take the ongoing efforts of the Legislature, in partnership with the governor’s office, to continue this important work,” Lee said,
Padden maintains he is not playing politics and stressed the need for urgent DOC reforms, something Padden and other Senate Republicans are already working on for the upcoming session.
He says that legislation could include anything from installing a medical auditor, performance audits, and most important, independent supervision and oversight of DOC and its medical services.