Our Prison Is Closing, With a Bitter Legacy of Contrasting Deaths

    Every year on the last Friday afternoon in January, bagpipes can be heard from the parking lot of Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), which sits atop a hill in the middle of rural Monroe, Washington. They’re played during an annual ceremony held in honor of Jayme Biendl, a prison guard killed on duty inside MCC’s outdated, chipping concrete walls. During the ceremony, all of us incarcerated here are locked in our cells—and reminded of the collective punishment that started one tragic night 10 years ago and never ended.

    Biendl, 34 when she died, had been working as a guard at MCC since 2002. She was named the facility’s Correctional Officer of the Year in 2008. On the evening of January 29, 2011, she ushered a group of prisoners from her usual post in MCC’s chapel after a religious service. The sanctuary looked like any church in the free world: colorfully decorated stained-glass windows, a stage full of musical equipment, a pulpit, rows of chairs arranged like pews.

    Later that night, prisoner Byron Scherf murdered her there. In 101 years, it was the first time a guard had been killed at MCC. And it will be the last: MCC, Washington’s second-largest prison and home to its second-oldest operating prison unit, is currently in the process of being shuttered. 

    It seems there simply aren’t enough people going to prison these days. Department of Corrections (DOC) admission rates have dropped by more than half since the pandemic began, leaving too many empty beds to justify maintaining facilities like ours. Those of us incarcerated here are being “consolidated” into other facilities. The state is now losing more correctional officers than it’s able to retain, reaching 180 vacancies as of May. 

    Often when something bad happens to a DOC employee, prisoners have little sympathy. This isn’t because of any widespread sociopathy within our community, but because of a mindset systematically implemented by the DOC. Staff are trained to hate and mistrust us. They’re taught that if they treat any prisoner as equal to themselves, or simply come to view them as human, that they’ve been “compromised.” This is a psychological power move, and contributes to recidivism.

    The incarcerated felt the hands of their captors tighten around their necks under the guise of enhancing security.

    Those of us intimately acquainted with the American criminal justice system know it to be a trap. It’s designed to collect people from the most disenfranchised walks of life and strip them of their humanity in order to create the most marginalized community in the country—so that various corporations can profit. It is difficult, then, to view prison guards as moral individuals; they have chosen work in a modern-day slave trade that’s more culpable for the nation’s crime rates than any one prisoner ever could be.

    A rare few, however, seem able to wear the uniform while transcending the oppression it represents, and while recognizing the basic rights of those whom they police. Though I didn’t know her personally, few MCC prisoners I know have ever spoken ill of Jayme Biendl; she seemed to be well-liked by everyone. Most tell me she treated them as equals and genuinely seemed to care that they were disenfranchised and oppressed. She used to sit amongst incarcerated churchgoers and participate in services.

    Most of us understand that until our prison-industrial complex is, at the very least, replaced with a rehabilitative model—like Norway’s—the best we can hope for is to have the occasional decent person working here.

    A handful of guards were fired following Biendl’s death. Some for failing to note that she hadn’t come over the radio to report her area secure. Others for allowing Scherf to walk back to the chapel after hours. Though Biendl’s coworkers were more responsible for her death than any prisoner other than Scherf himself, all were rehired—with backpay. Meanwhile, the incarcerated felt the hands of their captors tighten around their necks under the guise of enhancing security.

    The night Biendl was killed, a hulking guard burst into one of the living units yelling, “You’re all lucky you’re locked down right now, or I’d kill one of you motherfuckers myself!” He was answered by pleas from countless prisoners to be left alone with Scherf themselves. They were angry, too. And none of them had anything to do with Biendl’s murder.

    MCC’s entire incarcerated population spent most of the next three months locked in our six-by-nine-cells, unable to let our loved ones know we were alright. We were deprived of regular access to basic amenities such as toilet paper, razors or clean clothes.

    MCC houses medium- and minimum-security prisoners who have earned the right to be here through “good behavior.” But in reality, our movements are micromanaged, making it very difficult to prepare for reintegration into society. Since Biendl’s death, guards like her have become so rare they’re almost nonexistent. Staff have increased their spitefulness toward us, and most aren’t shy about why: It’s because one of them was murdered by a prisoner.

    The numbers don’t lie: Prison staff pose a much greater threat to the incarcerated than we do to them.

    In addition to the annual ceremony, murals have been erected and T-shirts printed in Biendl’s memory. This is understandable. But consider that prisoners here die at the hands of the DOC not once in a century, but all the time. As far as I know, the flag on MCC’s grounds has never even been lowered to half-mast in remembrance of one of them.

    Like Sidney Potts, and the countless others here forcefully exposed to COVID.Or Richard Mejia, who died from sepsis after prison administrators refused to take him to an outside hospital. Or the three prisoners who died under the negligence of MCC’s former medical director. The numbers don’t lie: Prison staff pose a much greater threat to the incarcerated than we do to them. Moreover, we’re the ones locked in with the Scherfs of the world, many of us sharing cells with them every night.

    MCC will likely be empty by the end of this year, leaving it little more than a century-old memorial to the medieval style of incarceration of which some factions of society can’t seem to let go. Biendl’s murals will remain in the darkened building with nobody to look at them, save the ghosts of those who were marched into the confines of the 30-foot brick walls, knowing they would someday die here. Her memory will live on in the hearts of the friends, family and coworkers who loved her, and of the prisoners who appreciated her. We can only hope that the hatred ushered in by her death stays behind.



    Photograph via Pixabay

    • Michael is an author from Washington state. His books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award; the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is taught at the University of Washington; the psychological thriller, Secret Harbor; and the middle grade story, Nightmares in Aston. His writing has also been published by a number of outlets including the Huffington Post and the Nation.

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