Forward-looking approach aims to head off problems before they occur
Ongoing problems at the scandal-plagued state Department of Corrections are prompting a trio of Senate Republicans to introduce a package of sweeping reforms to address what they call a costly and fatal record of mismanagement.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said recent inmate deaths due to inadequate medical care demonstrate the agency’s problems are far from being solved. Padden led a comprehensive Senate investigation into management failures at the agency four years ago.
Padden said, “Corrections keeps saying, ‘trust us,’ and look what happens. It has gotten to the point that our Democratic colleagues are expressing interest in reform as well. The package we have introduced is the kind of comprehensive reform I think both parties can support. We shouldn’t just react to problems – we should keep them from occurring in the first place. We have seen the governor’s watered-down, no-accountability approach already, and it hasn’t done the job.”
The Department of Corrections suspended the medical director at the state prison in Monroe last year following an investigation that uncovered a pattern of inadequate care that may have contributed to at least three inmate deaths. A scathing report released last month about one inmate death indicates prison officials ignored his cancer diagnosis for 15 months and failed to provide treatment.
Senate Republicans are introducing four measures this year to address systemic management problems, encourage greater accountability, improve safety for inmates and corrections workers and support whistleblowers who identify problems at the agency.
Padden and Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, introduced their bills this week, joining Sen. Keith Wagoner of Sedro-Woolley, who filed two measures prior to Monday’s start of the 2020 legislative session.
Systemic DOC Reform
Senate Bill 6298, sponsored by Padden, would
- explicitly establish that DOC’s central duty is the protection of public safety;
- require performance audits of the agency’s information-technology and medical units;
- mandate that DOC put a higher priority on re-imprisoning felons who have violated community-supervision requirements; and,
- permit sentencing reviews when sentencing calculations are performed incorrectly.
“These reforms are way overdue,” Padden said. “We offered some of them in a comprehensive reform bill in 2017. Unfortunately, the governor’s office took offense, and the bill was blocked in the House. At this point I think all of us have to recognize something is haywire. I hope these recent deaths will help change the governor’s mind.”
In 2016, the Senate Law and Justice Committee, then chaired by Padden, conducted an exhaustive investigation of Corrections’ early release of some 3,000 prisoners convicted of violent and dangerous crimes. Those early inmate releases spanned a 13-year period, and they continued three years after DOC employees learned of the problem and attempted to flag it to the attention of their supervisors. At least two deaths and numerous other crimes were linked to inmates who should have been behind bars at the time.
Protecting Inmates and Corrections Officers
Wagoner’s SB 6063 directly tackles management problems in the agency’s medical unit. The bill would establish minimum qualifications for a prison medical director, set criteria for transferring a patient to a health care facility for medical assistance and standardize policies and procedures for offsite medical treatment.
“I represent all the people at Monroe – the inmates we are entrusted to care for during their incarceration, as well as the corrections officers who deserve a work environment that is as safe as possible,” Wagoner said.
“While accountability for this and other recent failures will undoubtedly be the highest concern for victims’ families, we also need to look forward and address the serious safety concerns for all involved. We also have a duty to ensure we provide medical care to inmates under the state’s watch.”
Wagoner’s other measure, SB 6064, would require DOC to install body scanner devices in prisons by July 1, 2024. Wagoner said he was inspired by a body-scanner pilot program that intercepted as much contraband in two months as in an entire year of pat-downs, strip searches and other traditional methods.
O’Ban’s proposal, Senate Bill 6322, addresses failures of leadership and accountability within the agency’s upper management. The measure would give greater authority to the ombuds office created in the wake of the early-release scandal. The office, created with the governor’s support, was crippled by management structure and restrictions that prevented investigation into concerns raised by DOC staff, O’Ban said. The bill would remove the ombuds office from the governor’s office and allow it to operate independently, and would direct the state to staff it with an outside provider. Retaliatory measures against whistleblowers would be prohibited, including settlement agreements with whistleblowers that bar them from future employment with the state.
O’Ban said DOC’s front-line employees are among the most knowledgeable about management problems. During the Senate’s DOC investigation, many alerted lawmakers to agency waste, fraud, mismanagement and abuse.
“Recent disclosures of problems with DOC’s medical programs offer conclusive evidence the agency still hasn’t cleaned up its act,” O’Ban said. “Where there are problems, we want to know about them.”
O’Ban voiced optimism that the time is right for bipartisan action on the package of DOC reforms but noted that the Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature may not yet be ready to hold a Democratic administration accountable.
“We have been fighting for vital reforms and accountability at DOC for nearly five years,” O’Ban said. “The package Republicans have introduced is the kind of comprehensive reform I hope Democrats will finally support.”