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In Our View / Monroe prison employees

Prison ruling a win for complacency

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The Monroe Correctional Complex houses about 2,400 criminal offenders, some of whom have never owned up to their misdeeds.
They've received first chances. And second chances. And third chances. Their problems have been blamed on schools, on parents, on substance abuse.
But, finally, they're being held accountable. They are locked up and paying a price.
So, we got a disheartening dose of irony Tuesday when a labor arbitrator announced that four corrections employees -- assigned to guard inmates at the Monroe facility -- should not be held fully accountable for mistakes and inattention that contributed to the death of officer Jayme Biendl.
After reviewing transcripts and other official records, arbitrator Michael E. Cavanaugh acknowledged that three corrections officers and one sergeant failed to perform their jobs according to standards on that night in January 2011, when Biendl was strangled by an inmate at the prison chapel.
We can blame it on the system.
Or we can blame it on some supervisors.
Or we can blame in on an overall atmosphere of complacency.
It would be wrong, the arbitrator concluded, to make three officers pay with their jobs -- or to demote the sergeant who supervised them.
Cavanaugh takes little issue with the Department of Corrections' assertion that the officers made fateful mistakes -- some willful, some through oversight. In fact, a central theme of his findings is that lax performance had been so common at Monroe that it served to exonerate anyone who did a mediocre job.
As he reasons in one footnote: "[I]f complacency 'exists periodically in all institutions,' then it is difficult to say that complacency, in and of itself, goes so far beyond the realm of the merely 'negligent' as to constitute 'wanton' or 'willful' misconduct, the usual definition of 'gross negligence.'"
In other words, they've done their jobs so poorly for so long -- during times when no tragedies occurred -- it would be unfair to punish them now, just because something disastrous happened.
The arbitrator's decision invites us to contemplate two points that may leave reasonable people swaying between frustration and indignation.
If management doesn't communicate and enforce workplace standards, it obviously erodes its authority to impose harsh punishments in worst-case situations. But in a case like this, does management dysfunction free the officers of all personal and professional accountability?
A fellow officer has perished, but they will receive full reinstatement with back pay.
Finally, what about the pervasive culture of complacency at Monroe? It reveals a failure of leadership, yet no one above the rank of sergeant was fired or demoted.
Where does the buck stop?

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