By Polly Keary, Editor
Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl should have been listened to when she said her work environment wasn’t safe. And an inmate with a long history of murderous violence toward women shouldn’t have had access to her while she was working alone at the prison.
That’s what family members of Biendl, slain by an inmate three years ago in January, plan to argue in court.
Last week they filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, former Monroe prison superintendent Scott Frakes, and 10 unnamed prison employees, claiming that they were responsible for bad decisions that enabled inmate Byron Scherf to kill Biendl in the empty chapel where she worked.
The night of the murder, Biendl, a former Officer of the Year, was working alone in the chapel of the prison, as she had done for years. Scherf, who once lured a real estate agent to an empty house, assaulted her and set her on fire, which she barely survived, was there, as he was a chapel volunteer. At the end of the evening, when everyone was supposed to go back to their cells, Scherf snuck back into the chapel, crept up behind Biendl and attacked her, strangling her with a microphone cable.
According to court documents, in the 10 months prior to her death, Biendl had raised concerns about safety issues including inadequate radios, lighting and cameras.
“None of these issues were corrected or addressed,” said the petitioners, including Biendl’s parents and her brother-in-law, who represents her estate.
Other bad decisions made by people within the system include allowing Scherf to be classified as medium security, given his history of violent crimes against women, they argue. Had Scherf been in closed custody, he wouldn’t have been in Biendl’s part of the prison.
As it was, Scherf’s volunteer position put him in regular contact with Biendl, and the family questions the way the prison vetted inmates for volunteer positions.
The family also called into question many of the events of the night of the murder.
The night of Jan. 29, 2011, after Biendl was attacked and killed, her murder wasn’t discovered for more than an hour, even though officers had found a bleeding Scherf outside the chapel when he was already supposed to be back in a cell.
“No staff searched the chapel area,” said the family. “They did not search for her because of inadequate and dangerous customs and practices of failing to account for staff.”
Their claims follow a 2012 finding by an internal investigation that there were several serious errors on the part of staff that night. Four staff members lost their jobs because of false statements and paperwork that said that the chapel had been searched when it clearly hadn’t, and that Biendl had been accounted for at the end of her shift, when in fact her failure to turn in her keys and equipment wasn’t noted until more than an hour later.
A union appeal against the firings lead to the reinstatement of all four officers last July, however. The officers argued, in part, that a “culture of complacency” had been at fault for their job performances.
An arbiter sided with them, saying that while all four were at fault for their lapses, they should not have been punished so harshly.
The failings of the prison system deprived the family of not only a beloved daughter and sister, but a fair amount of financial and domestic support, the family stated.
Biendl helped provide for her mother, and helped her around the house.
While no specific sum was named in the complaint, the family has said that they expect to seek damages in excess of $5 million.
Scherf has been sentenced to death. He is appealing the sentence.
The Department of Corrections has declined to comment on the case.