The City of Monroe for the first time recognized its partnership with the Monroe Correctional Complex in conjunction with National Correctional Officers and Employees Week.

Mayor Geoffrey Thomas signed a proclamation during last Tuesday's Monroe City Council meeting. The facility's three superintendents and the complex's Correctional Officer of The Year Christopher Lee accepted four copies. MCC superintendent Mike Obenland plans to place each one in a different unit, where his staff can see them. 

“I have worked in several other prisons, and the City of Monroe is the first one I can remember that has recognized the work that we do in their community,” he said.

Obenland said people generally understand the dangers his staff may face during a shift. Every day the public sees horrific crimes committed in the news. What they don't see is what happens once someone is sentenced to prison, he said.  

Individuals behave the same way when they are confined, Obenland said. Employees and officers risk being assaulted, he said.

Corrections officer Jamie Biendl was murdered by repeat rapist Byron Scherf in 2011. He strangled her in the correctional complex chapel. The facility has since worked to change the way safety is addressed for employees and officers.

Supports are available for when someone has a hard experience on shift, or even at home, such as a family member getting sick, Obenland said. He has been in Monroe for nearly three years.

Obenland said he is still amazed how dynamic and complex daily operations are. About 1,200 employees and officers manage five units: the Washington State Reformatory, Twin Rivers, Minimum Security, Special Offender and Intensive Management units are spread across 365 acres. 

“It is a city within a city,” Obenland said.

The Washington State Reformatory was the first section to be built, back in 1910. Many of the later buildings were constructed at different times, Obenland said.

Staff also manages the programs in place for nearly 2,400 male minimum, medium and maximum-security inmates. They can work in food service, an optical manufacturing lab, a print shop and on-site laundry. Some also learn to sew and support administrative services.

The training teaches valuable skills, but the men have to want it, Obenland said. Sometimes officers have to help the inmates work through a severe lack of trust in the system.

In the mental health inpatient treatment unit, they walk inmates through taking medication or eating, he said. The work the employees do is something that Obenland said he didn't believe until he saw it himself.

“Basic things that we take for granted we can't take for granted over there because their (inmates) understanding or their comprehension of that may not be there,” Obenland said.

Lee works in the Violators Unit. He changed careers about six years ago, after 15 years in construction. He was always interested in law enforcement  — his dad retired from a law enforcement agency in Oregon. 

Obenland said Lee being honored as Officer of The Year was well deserved. The award is given based on nominations from peers and supervisors. Lee works with people who were taken into custody because they violated the terms of their release.

Every day is very different, Lee said. He doesn't usually try to expect anything from a shift.

Lee is often confronted with people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Obenland said. Being back in jail can cause the person even more stress. He said Lee is often the one responsible for keeping them calm.

He has also shown a knack for discovering paraphernalia even the best trained would have a hard time finding, Obenland said. Lee helps make the entire complex safer, he said.

Both men said they have different ways of dealing with the tough situations they encounter on the job.

For Lee, it's golf — a lot of golf — and family. Obenland said he starts work when he puts his tie on in the morning, and leaves it at night when he changes at home. He also gets support from his wife, who worked in the same field for many years.

The couple also enjoys riding motorcycles together and getting outdoors.

Lee said he also leans on his coworkers. The recognition this year would not have felt as good without knowing they backed him.

Obenland said the city's proclamation touched him personally. He said the work of corrections officers can yield little gratitude. The correctional complex and city have a longstanding relationship.

Several former MCC officers now work for the Monroe Police, Obenland said. The agency also responds to crime, such as fights or assault that occurs on the campus. The complex donates to the Sky Valley Food Bank every year, and the flowers in city planters on Main Street were grown at the complex, he said.

“I just think it’s nice to be appreciated by the city you work in,” Lee said.