Washington State Penitentiary workers air worries

They spoke to the area's legislative delegation at a meeting Tuesday.

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WALLA WALLA -- A room full of corrections workers gave local legislators an earful Tuesday.

At a community forum, corrections officers and other prison employees from Washington State Penitentiary said a host of issues have pushed many of them to a critical point, both on and off the job.

Attending the forum were Sen. Mike Hewitt, state Rep. Terry Nealey and state Rep. Maureen Walsh. The event was hosted by Teamsters Local Union 117, which represents corrections workers throughout Washington state.

During the discussion, two major concerns expressed by speakers were how personnel cuts are eroding safety on the job while pay cuts, furloughs and increased medical costs are harming families at home.

In regard to safety, speakers said a fight Sunday between more than 50 prisoners in the prison's West Complex highlighted the dangers officers face due to staff cuts.

Corrections officers John Christy and Scott Nettles both said before being reinforced, the prison staff were far outnumbered by inmates. In addition, the manpower that had to be called in to quell the fight left the rest of the institution at risk.

"Had we had one more fight, we would have lost control," Nettles said. "What's going to happen when somebody dies? Cameras don't cut it, we need bodies on the ground ... We don't have enough bodies to watch the inmates we have now."

Corrections Sgt. Dennis Bendixsen agreed.

"I've spent the last two nights in G unit (where the fight erupted,)" he said. "The point is, we're circling the drain. There's a lot of people who are going to be hurt due to staff cuts. There's a lot of brave people here, I would like everyone to go home in one piece."

"These events are significant," he said. "When the (Department of Corrections) is going to do something about it is when blood is running out from under the door."

In regards to health care, speakers said plans to increase the premium share corrections workers have to pay for medical insurance, combined with cuts in pay, threatened to push families onto welfare rolls.

One woman who said she worked as a secretary in the prison's hospital said she has been furloughed since July. "Now I have to decide whether I'm going to buy groceries or pay my electrical bill."

Another speaker told the lawmakers "the furlough days cut $117 out of my (pay)check every month, and because of that, I can't afford my co-pay."

Christy also asked legislators to oppose the increase in the premium share. "As a 61-year old law enforcement officer that is beginning to experience more periods of pain than of comfort, and looking down the barrel of major surgeries, I can attest how important affordable health care can be.

"I love what I do, I just don't appreciate the DOC and the governor taking an ax to the people I work with," he said.

During the forum, Hewitt, Nealey and Walsh all expressed support for the corrections workers and urged them to get lawmakers as much information as they can to help argue their case in Olympia. They also urged the union members to communicate proposals and suggestions to them so those could be incorporated into legislation.

"Your sense of camaraderie resonates with Olympia," Walsh told the audience. "I don't want you to feel you are isolated victims. We will advocate as much as we can. There won't be miracles, but we'll do the best we can."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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