Safety of corrections officers has to come first

Corrections officers should work with prison system management to implement changes that will improve safety.

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Prison safety has become, as it should be, a top priority in Washington state.

The murder of Jayme Biendl, a corrections officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex, has exposed flaws in security.

State officials, inside and outside of the Department of Corrections, have called for swift action to identify security lapses and fix them. Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced reforms based on an investigation of the system by the National Institute of Corrections.

It is now being recommended corrections officers wear personal body alarms and carry pepper spray. The report said the lack of personal body alarms meant officers have to rely on radio, telephone or shouting if they need assistance. Biendl had a radio, which was destroyed in her struggle.

The report said staff should be issued pepper spray to help deal with violent confrontations with inmates. Officers are currently unarmed. Guns are not allowed inside the prison walls for fear they could be grabbed by inmates. Officers in towers, however, are armed.

These and other improvements will be welcome.

But let's not lose perspective either. Washington's prisons are generally very well run and the officers are well trained. An officer has not been killed in a prison since the late 1970s when an officer was killed at the Washington State Penitentiary here.

Since then vast improvements have been made to security. Yes, more can be done. After all, flaws are being detected.

Fixing those problems will be a bigger challenge than in years past because of the huge financial strain the state - and Department of Corrections - is under. Staffing has already been reduced because of budget cuts and it is unlikely the prison system will see a boost in its budget.

This fact might be driving legislation - House Bill 2011 - that would make safety issues, including staffing levels, subject to binding arbitration in union negotiations.

The legislation, which was approved in the House and is now being considered by the Senate, is unnecessary and unwise. It could put management of state prisons into the hands of arbitrators who may not have any experience or a deep understanding of running maximum-security institutions.

It also takes away flexibility if - make that when - there is changes in technology making some of the mandates obsolete.

An arbitrator is making decisions without having to consider factors such as cost. This is not necessarily an effective or efficient way to run a prison system or establish safety policies.

The best approach is for the officers and prison system management to work together to implement appropriate security measures that are truly necessary and enhance security.

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