$n$ State corrections chief looks to department's future

Eldon Vail, during a visit to Walla Walla, reflected on an officer's death, budget cuts and the road ahead.

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WALLA WALLA -- At the start of a tough year, Eldon Vail could still find some things to smile about Tuesday.

During a visit to Walla Walla, the Department of Corrections secretary and Stephen Sinclair, Washington State Penitentiary superintendent, talked about challenges facing the department, future hopes and dealing with the death of one of their own.

As state legislators grapple with closing a $5 billion budget gap, Vail said he is hopeful no further major budget cuts will be on the horizon.

"If the Legislature doesn't do anything worse than what's in the governor's budget, we'll be OK," he said. Legislators have been "pretty understanding" about the cuts corrections have absorbed so far, he said.

Vail said the toughest cut to absorb was the 6.3 percent across-the-board reduction Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered last year. Some of the most serious cuts proposed were avoided or reduced. These included removal of corrections officers from prison kitchens, reduction in recreation program leaders and cuts in pay to compensate people working at remote locations.

"We're done, at least in my opinion, with absorbing any more across-the-board cuts," Vail said.

In regard to local developments, Sinclair said that although DOC officials "are still waiting to see where the capital budget goes," Gregoire's proposed budget still has funds to add new close-custody and medium-custody beds at Washington State Penitentiary. The budget also contains money for a new prisoner intake center to be built on the west side, Vail said.

Budget issues aside, Vail talked about how his department is dealing with the murder of Correctional Officer Jayme Biendl on Jan. 29 at Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.

Currently, "there's layer on layer of investigations" being conducted into Biendl's death, Vail said. This includes the criminal investigation of the suspect as well as scrutiny of staff safety measures needed to protect officers.

Those investigations involve the state Department of Labor and Industries and an independent review by a team from the National Institute of Corrections, Vail said.

There are events that have shaped the history of the corrections department and Biendl's death is one of those, Vail said.

"We went 32 years almost without losing an officer in the line of duty," he said. "I've had police chiefs tell me that's a miracle. It's not a miracle, it's a whole lot of very hard work by correctional officers. That's a credit to the whole lot of the people who work there."

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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