By JOHN SCEARCY
(Feb. 24, 2017) — The state Legislature is right to focus on fully funding our public education system as required under the McCleary decision. We need to invest in our children.
These include the corrections employees who staff our state’s prison system. Corrections employees put their lives on the line to serve and protect our communities. They perform uniquely stressful and challenging work in a dangerous environment.
Unfortunately, we often ignore the dangers of corrections work until disaster strikes. This was the case earlier this year when inmates at a Delaware prison held four staff members hostage for two days. The crisis ended in tragedy, with one officer injured and another found dead.
The timing of this incident is especially troubling given its proximity to the anniversary of the death of Officer Jayme Biendl, who was murdered in 2011 at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
Officer Biendl and the corrections officer in Delaware made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. We can never completely prevent these tragedies, but we can take immediate steps to protect the men and women who risk their lives to protect our communities.
The Legislature can start by approving an external audit of staffing levels in all Washington prisons. The Department of Corrections operates under a staffing model that is dangerously outdated. An external audit would identify parts of the system that are understaffed and make recommendations for improvements.
We can modify the Public Records Act to protect the personal information of DOC employees. Many correctional employees are harassed by felons who obtain their information through public disclosure. A proposal (SB 5326) before the state Senate would allow prison staff to seek legal damages if their information is used for nefarious purposes.
Finally, we can fund the corrections contract. Washington’s corrections employees are significantly underpaid for the dangerous work they perform.
Experienced officers, who represent the largest job classification at the state’s Department of Corrections, earn 37 percent less than officers who work at the county level. Other DOC job classifications are similarly underpaid.
The corrections contract contains wage increases for corrections staff that were awarded by an independent arbitrator and deemed financially feasible by the state’s Office of Financial Management.
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’ impact model indicates that a fully-funded DOC contract would generate $567 million of economic activity statewide. Local small businesses benefit when community members have more money in their pockets.
Investing in corrections employees and other public servants will make our communities stronger and our state’s prisons safer. It will help retain experienced staff who are best suited to prepare offenders for life after prison.
Many of our corrections employees are military veterans who served our country and are now continuing that service back home. Our support will help protect these men and women who have devoted their lives to public safety. It will also improve the economic stability of our communities.
John Scearcy is the principal officer at Teamsters Local 117. Teamsters Local 117 represents approximately 5,600 employees at the Department of Corrections statewide. This column originally appeared in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and is posted here with the author’s permission.
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