SEATTLE — Following the strangling of an officer at the state prison in Monroe this year, national correctional experts made a simple suggestion for improving safety at Washington's prisons: Eliminate meal breaks for corrections officers.
The idea to have the officers munch during their shifts was designed to keep staffing levels constant, rather than having some guards left short-staffed in a dangerous environment while others took breaks.
The state Department of Corrections made the change at its complex in Monroe within the past month, switching officers on day and swing shifts from 8.5- to 8-hour work days, and is rolling it out at the state's other major prisons.
But it hasn't yet done so at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, where a brazen escape attempt Wednesday was timed to an officer's lunch break. A guard was briefly held hostage during the incident, which ended with a prisoner being shot and killed.
"We have a tough economic climate in Washington and we're trying to increase staffing levels without additional expenditures," Washington state deputy prison director Dan Pacholke said Thursday.
The attempted prison break Wednesday occurred at the Olympic Peninsula facility's garment shop, where about 70 inmates typically work making offender uniforms and coveralls. The prisoners were supervised by two unarmed corrections officers and a handful of civilian staff members, who are also trained in responding to prison emergencies.
While one of the two corrections officers was on a lunch break, two inmates – convicted murderer Kevin Newland and Dominick Maldonado, who shot and injured seven people during a rampage at the Tacoma Mall in 2005 – put their plan into action. Maldonado grabbed the unarmed officer and held him hostage with a pair of scissors readily available in the garment shop, while Newland took keys from the guard, unlocked a forklift and rammed it through a rollup door, officials said.
Newland ignored verbal commands and a warning shot before an officer shot him, said DOC spokesman Chad Lewis, and Maldonado released his hostage after seeing his partner killed.
The prison was expected to remain on lockdown for several days. Clallam County sheriff's detectives arrived Thursday to investigate, and Maldonado could face charges of escape or custodial assault.
Pacholke and Lewis were quick to emphasize that it was standard procedure for there to be one officer on duty in the garment shop while the other took a lunch break. They also said the presence of the civilian staff, who train offenders in the garment industry, mitigated the officer's absence.
When the attack occurred, the civilian employee in the vicinity tried to intervene physically, saw that he had little chance of success and quickly acted to alert prison officials, Pacholke said.
"If you would have had two corrections officers, it would have been a stronger response, but the civilian correctional industry workers responded very well," Pacholke said.
Jim Smith, director of corrections and law enforcement with Teamsters Local 117, the union representing the state's corrections officers and civilian Correctional Industries workers, said the civilian worker involved was repeatedly punched by Newland.
Even after he broke free, Newland chased him down and beat him again before he was able to summon help, said Smith, who visited the prison Thursday to meet with union members involved and ensure their mental and physical well-being.
It was too early to say whether staffing levels played a factor, Smith said.
"The criminal investigation is under way, and we want to make sure it's a solid investigation for prosecuting someone who assaulted our members, but we'll be looking at it thoroughly when the investigation is finished," he said.
He also said it's unclear whether the switch to 8-hour schedules without breaks is a good idea. The prisons historically had such schedules before moving to 8.5-hour shifts with meal breaks several years ago.
"This is a high-pressure, high-intensity job, and you need to be focused on the inmates," he said. "To be on for eight hours straight, without any breaks, that's also a concern."
The switch was recommended by the National Institute of Corrections, which was asked to review state prison operations following the death of Officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe reformatory in January. Biendl was strangled by a convicted rapist in a chapel.
The institute also suggested that officers wear personal body alarms and carry pepper spray.
Typically, corrections officers assigned to areas where prisoners live and work are unarmed, due to concerns that inmates might be able to take the weapons. Other officers, such as those assigned to special response teams, do carry guns.