Asking front-line DOC employees what works, what doesn't is wise

Two lawmakers sent an email to more than 8,000 workers. The results could help make state prisons better.

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Working as a correctional officer or other jobs calling for direct contact with inmates inside a prison is stressful. Adding to the stress recently are deep budget cuts forcing layoffs and upheaval within the upper ranks of management at the Department of Corrections.

Given all that, one would think there are some problems within the department. But what are the problems and what can be done to solve them?

Hmmm, that's a question that could be best answered by those on the front line of running the state's prison system.

And, to their credit, two state lawmakers -- one a Democrat, the other a Republican -- have set out to do just that.

Sens. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, sent an email to more than 8,000 front-line DOC employees asking what is working and what needs fixing in the agency.

Carrell said in a news release Tuesday that with turmoil at the top and apparent ethics violations, "it is clear that the agency is somewhat troubled."

The agency has had several resignations, including those of former Secretary Eldon Vail and two assistants, and another high-ranking official has been reassigned while the Executive Ethics Board investigates allegations she ran nonprofit groups on state time, according to the Daily Olympian newspaper.

The idea of asking for employee feedback is apparently patterned after a similar solicitation by Sens. Joseph Zarelli and Sen. Margarita Prentice for budget-saving ideas. The senators received many money-saving ideas from across state government.

"Hopefully we'll collect a whole bunch of information. I don't expect to get any huge surprises," Carrell said. "But it'll give me an idea how widespread (any problem) is, how the rank and file is feeling and what isn't working.''

The information gleaned from this employee survey could be very helpful as the Legislature begins to trim $2 billion from the 2011-2013 budget in late November. DOC employees likely have strong feelings, backed by on-the-job experiences, that could make it clear to lawmakers what would occur if staffing is cut at various institutions. These cuts could impact job safety for corrections officers.

Gov. Chris Gregoire asked DOC Secretary Bernie Warner to make plans for a budget cut as deep as 10 percent. Warner has done that and it's not pretty. One scenario, for example, has more than 170 jobs being lost at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Hargrove and Carrell made the right move in reaching out to employees to get as much information as possible. This, assuming employees answer honestly, could help the Legislature and the DOC to better manage the state's prisons.

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