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Washington State Prison Chief Secretly Forced to Retire, But Why?

It all seemed above board when, on January 26, 2021, Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Stephen Sinclair sent an email to DOC employees announcing his retirement effective May 1, 2021, but, according to the Seattle Times, a Public Records Request led to documentation that revealed he had been asked to step down by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

After Sinclair announced his pending retirement, Inslee praised his over three decades of service at the DOC, including being its secretary since 2017. He did not mention that he had requested Sinclair’s resignation and, when asked directly about it, he deflected, calling it “irrelevant at this point.”

The changing of the guard of top state officials is usually a highly choreographed performance. Staffers at the DOC and the governor’s office know their emails are public records and were careful not to reveal whether Sinclair was being forced out of office or not. But Sinclair was not so careful. His response to a draft of a schedule detailing the revelation of his retirement to the media included a notation for January 22: “Steve notifies Governor.” Sinclair put a comment on the draft asking, “Why do I need to notify the Gov he is the one who asked me to leave?”

That comment, which was among the thousands of pages of emails and other documentation the DOC released pursuant to a Public Records Act request, tore down the facade of unity Inslee had been projecting to the public.

Sinclair’s resignation took place in the wake of continuing media criticism of health care in state prisons. An Office of Corrections Ombuds report published shortly before Sinclair’s retirement was highly critical of medical treatment in the DOC, detailing fatal failures in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Sinclair had also been criticized for the DOC’s lackluster response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which left 14 prisoners and two employees dead. His response that the department did better than some other prison systems ignored the fact that the pandemic response of almost every prison system was abysmally inadequate.

Sinclair ran a system with close to 15,000 prisoners in a dozen state prisons and about 20,000 people under community supervision. His annual salary was $186,888.

The governor’s office declined to comment on Sinclair’s resignation, but spokesperson Tara Lee did say that “the state needed to move in a new direction at the Department of Corrections” and the governor had full confidence in the new secretary, Cheryl Strange. 



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