Picket calls for increased safety for officers at Walla Walla prison

Today's informational picket coincides with a serious assault on a staff member at the Washington State Penitentiary.

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Correctional Officers Debbie Cooke and Terry Palino take part in an informational picket this morning on 13th Avenue outside Washington State Penitentiary. Organized by Teamsters Local 117, the event was intended to draw attention to demands for measures the union contends are vital to increase officer safety in the state's prisons. (March 2, 2011)

WALLA WALLA -- An informational picket by correctional officers today took on a new air of urgency after one of their number was stabbed at Washington State Penitentiary on Tuesday.

Holding signs and urging passing motorists to honk in support, the officers lined up along 13th Avenue outside the penitentiary to urge support for measures their union contends are needed to increase on-the-job safety.

Organized by Teamsters Local 117, the union that represents corrections employees, the Walla Walla picket was one of 10 being held around the state today. Union members were calling for both action by the Department of Corrections and the Legislature to improve staff safety.

Correctional Officer Terry Palino said he and others have warned that attacks such as the one that killed Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl were going to happen as staffing levels drop.

"We predicted something like that months ago," he said, referring to concerns officers raised with local legislators at a meeting in November.

Among the safety issues correctional officers are concerned about is the reclassifying of inmates serving time for violent crimes to lower custody levels. The inmate accused of murdering Biendl was a convicted rapist serving a life sentence, but he had qualified for medium security in 2009 because of good behavior.

"If I'm serving life without parole, I'm going to try to get to the lowest security level I can so I can escape or commit an assault," Palino said.

Brenda Wiest, a union representative with the picketers, said the Teamsters are pressing for legislation that would grant corrections employees interest arbitration, which they contend would allow a neutral arbitrator to rule on grievances over safe working conditions. But union officials say that measure did not make it out of committee because Gov. Chris Gregoire threatened to veto the legislation.

Along with the Walla Walla demonstration, correctional officers were also conducting informational pickets in Aberdeen, Airway Heights, Forks, Gig Harbor, Monroe, Pasco, Shelton, Tumwater and Vancouver, said Paul Zilly, Teamsters spokesman.

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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