Jail chief receives national recognition for commitment

Island County Jail Chief Jose Briones has intense stories about the state’s largest prison.

Island County Jail Chief Jose Briones has many intense stories about his time at the state’s largest prison.

Beginning as a guard, he rose to the rank of captain and ran sections of the Monroe Correctional Complex that house the most difficult inmates — those who suffer from severe mental illness. He gained the respect of some of the most dangerous leaders of prison gangs with his no-nonsense style that blends civility and fairness.

On his worst day, he found the body of a guard who was murdered in the prison chapel.

His time at the helm of Island County’s 58-bed jail has been less eventful from a danger standpoint, but no less meaningful. Not only has he built a jail that is recognized as a model in the state, he has helped to foster a culture of collaboration, growth and professionalism, according to his peers.

Briones’ staff members recently notified him that he had been nominated and won the Detention Administrator of the Year Award from the National Institute of Jail Operations. He will receive a plaque, which was made by inmates at Leavenworth, during the JAILCON24 West training conference in Chandler, Arizona on June 10-12.

Corrections Sgt. Tyler Melnick spearheaded the effort of nominating Briones, which required him to gather recommendations. Staff members at the jail, Island County leaders, colleagues in other counties and others wrote letters of effusive praise.

“Since assuming his role, Chief Briones has created a culture where inmates are respected, and the priority is redemption and their future success,” state Sen. Ron Muzzall wrote.

Melnick said Briones has created a positive atmosphere for staff members to work, despite the serious nature of their mission. The staff feel supported, he said, and have opportunities for training and advancement while they do an ever-evolving job that is vital to the community.

“I love working here,” he said during an interview at the jail. “I’ve had other opportunities but I wanted to stay here.”

Many of the letters speak to how Briones reformed the jail from a troubled facility to a model in the state.

The former sheriff hired Briones after the in-custody death of 25-year-old Keaton Farris in 2015. The young man died from dehydration while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis; corrections shut off the water to his cell and failed to do routine checks on him.

The jail was under intense scrutiny, staff morale was extremely low at the time and staff numbers were barely enough to keep the facility functioning. The policies were “dangerously outdated” and security issues were emerging, according to Island County Sheriff Rick Felici.

“Chief Briones and his team have successfully ‘righted the ship’ and I believe we are currently running one of the best jails in Washington state,” Felici wrote. “Chief Briones has been instrumental in the positive improvement of our agency culture, professionalism and morale.”

A native of Vancouver, Washington, Briones took a job at the Monroe prison in the early 2000s on advice from a friend. He ended up staying for 15 years, working his way up the ranks and learning the policies and philosophies of modern corrections. When he heard about the position open in Island County, he decided it would be an interesting challenge.

“Why not take some of what we are doing in prisons and bring it to jails?” Briones said.

Jails used to be about warehousing people, Briones said, but not anymore. With 90% of the jail population suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems nowadays, Briones said it makes sense to incorporate treatment and rehabilitation into the facility. After all, reducing recidivism not only means a safer community, it is cost effective in the long run.

Briones worked to make changes quickly in the jail, although he understood that the staff was key to change.

“While implementing new policies and procedures following the incident report,” Corrections Lieutenant Eric Bingham wrote, “Chief Briones understood that the staff were struggling with the death of an inmate, loss of staff members that either quit or were dismissed, and the increase in mentally ill inmates. He brought in a crisis team to help staff handle residual PTSD from the incident.”

With the support of the sheriff, county commissioners and the Human Services Department, Briones greatly expanded medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment in the jail. His programs have received many accolades, from being named an “Innovator County” for utilizing the three-step approach in obtaining data on inmates with mental illness to being recognized by Disability Rights of Washington as being innovative for having nurses screen inmates for health issues at booking.

In fact, the Island County Jail has pioneered many successful programs in the state.

“Chief Briones has brought the leadership and professional guidance needed to mentor and lead our team to be one of the safest and innovative jails in Washington State,” Bingham wrote.

The policies and programs at the jail have had a real-world impact. The facility now has the lowest rates of incidents and use of force in the state. For example, staff has never used a Taser since Briones was hired.

“At other jails, they have been popping people on a weekly basis,” he said.

Briones and his top staff members lend their expertise to other jails. Briones is one of the few jail administrators in the state who was trained to conduct investigations in unexpected jail deaths and other critical incidents.

“Chief Briones has built a reputation not only locally but statewide as a pillar of professionalism and integrity in our profession,” wrote Lt. CJ Andersen at the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Bureau. “Chief Briones makes himself available to any agency in a time of need and is someone who brings great pride to our profession.”

Photo by David Welton
Island County Jail Chief Jose Briones stands with his staff. In the back from left are Deputy Katherine Schork, Deputy Melissa Faivre, Deputy Adam Stalker, Sgt. Tyler Melnick and Lt. Eric Bingham.

Photo by David Welton Island County Jail Chief Jose Briones stands with his staff. In the back from left are Deputy Katherine Schork, Deputy Melissa Faivre, Deputy Adam Stalker, Sgt. Tyler Melnick and Lt. Eric Bingham.