Inmate-health scandal at Corrections more evidence of Inslee leadership failure, say GOP senators

Padden will propose expanded package of reforms in 2020 session

As yet another major scandal rocks the state Department of Corrections, Senate Republicans who have been urging sweeping reforms for the agency since 2016 say enough is enough, and it’s far past time that Gov. Jay Inslee show some leadership and address the mismanagement of the agency under his watch.

“Incompetent leadership, high-profile blunders, costly lawsuits, inmates being released early and even deaths – that’s the record and legacy of  Washington’s state prisons under Governor Inslee’s watch,” said Sen. Mike Padden, the Republican leader on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “Instead of working to correct these issues, Governor Inslee has been putting up roadblocks and actively halting the progress of those of us who are offering solutions.”

The Spokane Valley lawmaker is one of the Senate Republicans, along with Sen. Keith Wagoner of Sedro-Woolley, who are preparing new legislation aimed at addressing DOC failures.

The latest high-profile prison blunder at DOC is a finding that negligence by the Monroe Correctional Complex head doctor may have contributed to the death of three inmates.

The situation at the prison, which is in the Snohomish County portion of Wagoner’s legislative district, highlights the need for comprehensive reform, say the lawmakers.

“This is a failure of leadership at the highest level but it should not taint the reputation of our professional DOC staff; let’s put the blame where it belongs, at the top,” said Wagoner. “It was clear from the start that Monroe’s medical director was unqualified for the position and lacked the necessary credentials for the job; yet somehow, those facts were overlooked or ignored. And now, six inmates have apparently suffered serious inadequate care, with three believed to have paid for that incompetence with their lives. We still don’t know how many more inmates were affected. There needs to be accountability, and more importantly, there needs to be fundamental reform; we owe it to the incarcerated and to those charged with their safety.”

Padden said that tragic news out of DOC is unfortunately no longer shocking to him, but to be expected given the failure of Inslee to lead on fixing the agency. As chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee in 2016, he fought for an independent Senate investigation into the agency after several inmates were released early, endangering the public.

The Senate investigation recommended major reforms, including better monitoring of agency performance by the governor’s office and the hiring of additional programmers qualified to make fixes to agency software. A bill enacting legislative recommendations (SB 5294) was passed by the Senate in 2017, but was quashed by the governor’s office when it reached the House of Representatives.

“We had an agreed-upon, bipartisan bill in 2017 that I had worked out with Democrat Representative Roger Goodman,” said Padden. “It passed the Senate and the House agreed to take it up, but at the last minute, the governor’s office went to [House] Speaker Frank Chopp to have him pull the legislation – killing the reform measure.”

“The governor asked the public to trust him that all problems would be resolved. Unfortunately, sweeping them under the rug didn’t do the trick.”

Padden said that he will be sponsoring the reform measure again next session, but expand it to incorporate ideas on how to address issues revealed in the Monroe case.

He noted, however, that Democrats are now in control of both chambers of the Legislature, and Democrat support will be needed to see reforms enacted.

“Republicans have been fighting for vital reforms and accountability at DOC since 2015,” Padden added. “Inslee needs to step up to his responsibilities as governor, or at least get out of the way, so those of us who are committed to fixing DOC can get the job done.”

Background Information

The sentencing scandal that sparked the Senate DOC investigation in 2016 involved the OMNI computerized sentencing system. Over a 13-year period, approximately 3,000 violent and dangerous felons were released before their sentences had concluded, some of them committing new crimes while they were supposed to be behind bars. Two of those cases resulted in death, a murder in Spokane and a DUI fatality in Bellevue. The Department of Corrections never completed a full accounting, making it impossible to determine precisely how many inmates were involved and how many were charged with new crimes

In February of 2019, lawmakers learned that the Department of Corrections had discovered a new problem with the way its computers calculate sentences. Department officials informed lawmakers of a minor problem involving a couple of inmates. Lawmakers later learned through the press that a staff of 50 is reviewing more than 3,000 cases to determine how many prisoners were released early or late. While some inmates were released early, putting the public at risk, others were denied justice by being held beyond their sentence.

On July 13, the Seattle Times’s Jim Brunner reported that Dr. Julia Barnett, was fired as facility medical director at the state prison in Monroe for misconduct, and is facing an investigation over allegations of inadequate patient care. According to the article:

Dr. Patricia David, DOC’s medical director of quality and care management, described Barnett’s conduct to an investigator in January as “a breach of care, insufficient care, insufficient oversight and then really poor clinical decision-making.” She said she didn’t think Barnett made “the right decision on several of these cases and that resulted in bad outcomes and even death.”

DOC faces several tort claims from inmates saying they’ve been harmed by inadequate medical treatment while Barnett ran Monroe’s medical facilities. One inmate has filed a lawsuit seeking $1.5 million for alleged misdiagnosis and negligent treatment of diabetic lesions on his feet.

Scorecard depicts recommendations implemented and ignored in 2017

Note: A Department of Corrections ombuds program was launched in 2018 (HB 1889), but the program is not independent – it is housed within the governor’s office – and it serves only inmates and their families, not Department of Corrections employees.