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Prisons chief resigns as new details emerge on escape attempt

Clallam Bay inmates Kevin Newland (left) and Dominick Maldonado.
Washington DOC
Clallam Bay inmates Kevin Newland (left) and Dominick Maldonado.

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington's prisons chief has resigned suddenly citing personal reasons. The announcement late Friday came the same week an inmate was fatally shot during a prison escape attempt.

Governor Chris Gregoire's staff says she did not ask Eldon Vail to tender his resignation.

Meanwhile new details have emerged about the incident at Clallam Bay prison. Both inmates involved held jobs in the prison garment factory despite disciplinary problems while behind bars and previous violent criminal histories.

According to Washington prison records, Kevin Newland and Dominick Maldonado were not model inmates. Newland, a convicted murderer, had seven prison violations – they included fighting and indecent exposure. Maldonado, known as the Tacoma Mall shooter, had six violations including one for possession of a razor blade.

Nonetheless, both inmates were allowed to work in the prison garment factory around scissors and sewing machines.

Jim Smith is a union attorney for Washington correctional officers. He says the escape attempt raises a number of safety issues including:

"Questions about the classifications of the offenders," Smith said. "Why were they working in that area given their violent histories?"

Deputy prisons director Dan Pacholke says he will review the screening criteria for who gets prison jobs. But he notes Newland and Maldonado had no serious behavior violations for the past two years.

He adds that both inmates were in close custody – just one step below isolation.

Here's how prison officials say the escape attempt unfolded: Newland and Maldonado were working in the garment factory along with 102 other inmates. They allegedly waited for one of two correctional officers to go to lunch and then staged a diversion by dropping a table making a loud sound.

When the lone remaining officer went to investigate, Maldonado allegedly took him hostage by putting a pair of work scissors to his neck. At that point, a civilian garment shop employee stepped in to help and was reportedly assaulted by Newland.

That employee then ran to get help while Newland allegedly stole a forklift and rammed it through a roll-up door and two prison fences. A correctional officer shot Newland dead outside the perimeter of the prison.

Officials say Maldonado released his hostage and surrendered after the shooting.

Pacholke says his agency was already in the process of improving security in the wake of the strangling death earlier this year of correctional officer Jayme Biendl at the Monroe prison.

Officers are being equipped with panic buttons. They’re already in use at Monroe and the state penitentiary at Walla Walla, but not yet at Clallam Bay.

In addition, officers are moving to eight-hour shifts instead of eight-and-a-half hours so that they don't have to take lunch breaks.

Asked about the availability of scissors in the garment factory, Pacholke says that will be reviewed but "I believe if it wasn't scissors it would have been something else."

The last escape from a maximum security prison in Washington was also at Clallam Bay in December of 1999. In fact, it happened in the exact same area of the prison – a sally port where trucks can back up to a garage door.

In that incident, two inmates scaled a fence. One was immediately captured. The other was arrested three days later.

After that escape, extra razor wire was added to the tops of the fences. Now, the agency plans to better reinforce the fence there against ramming by a vehicle like a forklift.

The last time a Washington correctional officer shot and killed an inmate was in 2003 when a prisoner at the Stafford Creek lock-up near Aberdeen rammed a pick-up truck through a fence.

On the Web:

Clallam Bay Corrections Center:

DOC press release:

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.