SEATTLE — The Washington Department of Corrections was wrong to fire three corrections officers and demote a sergeant for their actions around the time a guard was killed in a prison chapel two years ago, an arbitrator ruled.
Prison officials had accused the guards of misconduct, dereliction of duty and of purposely misleading investigators in the death of officer Jayme Biendl, who was strangled by a prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
In an award signed Sunday, arbitrator Michael Cavanaugh ruled in favor of an appeal from the Teamsters union. He ordered the reinstatement of the three officers and the sergeant with back pay and benefits. Three of the four should have been reprimanded, not fired or demoted, and the fourth should not have been disciplined, he said.
Cavanaugh noted that investigations by the state Department of Labor and Industries and the National Institute of Corrections found systemic problems in the prison’s procedures and equipment, as well as a widespread culture of complacency among supervisors and managers.
“The arbitrator’s ruling clearly demonstrates that the DOC imposed unfair discipline on its employees in the wake of this terrible tragedy,” Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, said Tuesday.
Biendl was strangled with an amplifier cord in January 2011 in the prison chapel. Inmate Byron Scherf, a convicted rapist who was already serving a life sentence, was convicted of aggravated murder in May and sentenced to death.
Scherf told investigators he had been in the chapel and started to leave when the prisoners were ordered back to their cells. But then he stopped, told another inmate he had forgotten his hat, and went back inside, where Biendl was alone.
One officer, David Young, was fired for being outside his assigned zone, where he might have seen an inmate return to the chapel. But the arbitrator found it was common for Young and other guards to be outside their assigned zones, and he had never been officially reprimanded about it before.
Officer George Lyons was fired for making a logbook entry indicating the chapel had been cleared of prisoners even though Biendl never gave an all-clear. The third, Charles Maynard, was fired for failing to properly inspect and secure the chapel when the prisoner accused in the killing was located. All three also were accused of giving inconsistent statements or lying to investigators, though Cavanaugh said there was no evidence of intentional dishonesty.