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Our View: Don't flinch from hard questions on jail

5:14 PM, May 10, 2013  |  Comments
Newly appointed Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks, then chief deputy, addresses the news media in an April press conference about the jail attack that seriously injured a corrections officer.
Newly appointed Marathon County Sheriff Scott Parks, then chief deputy, addresses the news media in an April press conference about the jail attack that seriously injured a corrections officer.
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An employee survey given to corrections officers at the Marathon County Jail released in March asked them to rank the quality of the organization in 60 categories. The best possible score was 100; the worst was 1.

In 46 categories, employees gave the jail a 1 - the lowest possible score, a total lack of confidence in the institution.

And then, on March 27, an attack by an inmate nearly killed a corrections officer.

The county has established a process for reviewing this issue, and to its credit has brought in citizen voices in the formulation of its review panel. That panel has a big responsibility. It will be important to take a broad view of the conditions that preceded the attack - and not to shy away from uncomfortable conclusions. Ultimately, that's the only way to address not just this problem but to prevent future problems in this or any other county department.

The problems at the jail didn't appear overnight. This year's survey was far from the first indication of trouble. But the signs, evidently, were ignored, overlooked or covered up by the people responsible for overseeing the jail, responding to problems and ensuring that conditions were safe.

? Former Marathon County Sheriff Randy Hoenisch, who retired in March after a Daily Herald Media investigation found he had been a no-show for his job, contributed mightily to a rotten culture that failed to respond to employee concerns, to ensure that corrections officers received adequate training and equipment and to ensure the safety of the public and its employees. The culture of any institution is set by its leaders. And there is every indication that Hoenisch's dereliction of duty was a pattern of years, not merely a recent development.

? Former jail administrator Bob Dickman, who resigned amid the investigation that has followed the attack, must be responsible for some of the jail's more egregious administrative failings, like failure to fix faulty communications systems or to provide employees with the training they needed.

But it's easy - in some ways too easy - to point the finger at Hoenisch and Dickman. They are both gone. It seems very likely that the failures here will have systemwide ramifications. Those won't be easy conversations to have, but it will be crucially important for the jail panel to have them.

Here's a nagging concern. Are the problems with evaluation and follow-up really confined to a single county department? If this is how the jail was run, what is happening elsewhere?

Editor's note: Daily Herald Media General Manager Michael Beck is a member of the Marathon County Jail citizens review panel. He was not involved in Editorial Board discussions and will not write or edit editorials on this topic.

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