Working in Prisons

Correctional officer Jayme Biendl was killed by an inmate at the Monroe prison on January 29, 2011.  In response to that tragedy I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper explaining how working in prisons is a dangerous, important and misunderstood occupation.  I shared this letter with my boss and he passed it along to the directors of all the other prisons in the state.  Here is the letter as printed in the newspaper.

POSTED ON Friday, February 11, 2011 AT 02:32PM

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – Keeping communities safe


As a member of the teaching staff at Washington State Penitentiary, I can attest to the shock, sadness and anger experienced by all of us at the death of Jayme Biendl at the Monroe prison. 

I watched parts of the memorial service on the Internet and was moved by the heartfelt speeches of her colleagues and state officials. Corrections Department Secretary Eldon Vail commented on how hard and dangerous it is to work in a prison. He added that corrections, as a whole, is misunderstood and unappreciated. Having worked at the Washington State Penitentiary for 14 years, I could not agree more.

The fact is, if you feel safe in your communities, it is because of four different groups of people. Police officers and law enforcement staff are on the streets every day preventing crime and apprehending criminals. Judges, lawyers and other members of the judicial system also work hard to make sure criminals are put behind bars. They all deserve our gratitude.

However, there are also correctional educators who teach not only basic skills to help inmates get a GED, but also provide a variety of vocational courses to help them get good jobs upon release. They also provide courses to help them become better citizens. This includes such courses as anger management, parenting and chemical dependency.

 There is a myth that people come out of prison as better criminals than when they went in. Correctional educators, along with prison psychologists and counselors, work very hard to ensure the inmates are better people when they come out.

Finally, and most importantly, the corrections officers are the real heroes in this system. 

Please don’t call them guards. They are highly trained officers. The few times I have had fights in my classroom, when I asked for help, a dozen officers were at my door within seconds.

At WSP we have the worst of the gang members, murderers, rapists and armed robbers. These officers risk their lives every day to ensure the safety of the staff and other inmates. They are often injured breaking up fights. 

Some members of the WSP emergency-response teams have more training than FBI agents, and are asked to assist other prisons or city police departments with emergencies. They are amazing people.

 If you see any blue-shirted officers in the community, shake their hand or buy them a coffee; they deserve our gratitude most of all for keeping our communities safe.

Andrew Gallagher
 Walla Walla