Cuts to DOC can't put prison workers at risk

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Proper staffing levels are critical to ensuring staff and inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary are safe.

The fiscal crisis that's hit Washington state government has been rough for state employees. Jobs have been lost, pay frozen and costs for medical benefits have increased.

The public, too, is feeling the financial pinch as services are being reduced or eliminated.

But the impact of budget cuts for those who work at state prisons is far more serious. It's literally a matter of life and death.

The Washington State Penitentiary and other state institutions must have an adequate number of trained staff on duty at all times to ensure the inmates and staff members are safe. Prisons are full of very dangerous people. They have already demonstrated they are capable of assault -- and murder.

Yet, cuts have to be made to corrections. Prisons are one of the biggest expenses in state government. When the state starts looking to save billions of dollars it just makes sense to go where the money is being spent. Cuts have already been made at the Department of Corrections and more are on the way.

Those who work inside the prison walls are concerned.

This week a forum was held in Walla Walla where DOC employees had an opportunity to offer their views on the cuts. Sen. Mike Hewitt, Rep. Terry Nealey and Rep. Maureen Walsh were in attendance.

Officers talked about a recent fight that escalated resulting in the institution being locked down.

"Had we had one more fight, we would have lost control," Officer Scott 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, "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. When the (Department of Corrections) is going to do something about it is when blood is running out from under the door."

About 30 years ago blood was often spilled at the penitentiary. Inmates murdered inmates and the staff was not safe. Officers, too, were killed.

It took years for the state to take control of the penitentiary. It required proper training and proper staffing.

Do we, as a state, want to go backwards? Are we willing to accept the loss of lives?

Unfortunately, there are no easy choices. The state has to reduce spending (or raises taxes) to balance the budget. State employees are going to continue to feel the financial pain. Some are going to lose their jobs.

The economic discomfort is tolerable. Putting state workers at risk of injury or death is simply not.

Steps must be taken to ensure prison workers are not put at risk to save a dollar.

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